Angelica Ross Doesn’t Want to Be Called a Trailblazer

Just call the newest Roxie Hart a boss.

Angelica Ross Interview

Gerson Lopes

Angelica Ross is lying across the stage of the Ambassador Theatre, a chorus of limber hunks lavishing her with adoration in the style of Bob Fosse. “The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be” — well, you know who.

That would be the murderous ingenue in the musical Chicago, a role that has been played by showbiz legends like Gwen Verdon and Liza Minnelli, recording artists like Brandy Norwood and Jennifer Nettles, and Bravo divas Lisa Rinna and Erika Jayne. Ross, who is starring as Roxie Hart on Broadway through Nov. 6, first fell in love with theater when she played Sleepy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves back in the first grade. Now, it’s finally her turn to don a bold crimson lip and be doted on by a flock of eager admirers.

“I've been known lately as somebody who is starting to manifest things, and this definitely feels like one of them,” Ross tells InStyle of making her Broadway debut. 

Fans likely know Ross from her career-making turn as Candy Ferocity on Pose, the FX series about New York City’s Ballroom scene, co-created by Steven Canals and Ryan Murphy. Candy is a vibrant fashion plate with a sharp wit who is trafficked into survival sex work, an experience that Ross and many Black trans women share, and a beloved character who becomes a totem for perseverance. Ross has since gone on to become a recurring player in the Murphy-verse, appearing in multiple seasons of American Horror Story

This is the part of the story when we point out that these credits qualify Ross as a trailblazer — the first openly trans woman to play a leading part on Broadway, and the first to be cast in two series-regular roles. Ross, who has been an ardent activist for queer and trans people since high school, recognizes the significance of such milestones. Still, she resists the idea that framing her story in these terms signals real progress.

“I don't like being talked about as the first to do anything because I feel like it creates competition within my community,” Ross says. “In a world where exceptionalism is a substitute for real systemic change, our community sometimes has a perspective of limitation.” And one show on Broadway with a trans lead does not mean that equality, or equity, has been achieved. 

Angelica Ross Interview

© 2022, Jeremy Daniel

“We're in a place right now where there's a lot of effort and money being paid in crafting a media narrative,” Ross says, which can serve as a distraction and even suggest limitations. “As a Black person, as an immigrant, as a disabled person — don't focus on the stories that you're being told about your possibilities,” she says. “Focus on your determination and your ability to respond to the challenges.”

For Ross, stepping into the nimble soles of Roxie Hart has meant living “like a nun, basically” for six weeks of intensive dance and vocal rehearsals, followed by a performance schedule that includes five-show weekends. (“It makes sense, I’m sure, to somebody.”) Though Ross is a devout fan of the 2002 movie by director Rob Marshall, for which Renée Zellweger was nominated for an Oscar, she avoided watching it while preparing for the part. 

Instead, she drew inspiration from portrayals of Black women during the Jazz Age, including Lela Rochon and Jasmine Guy’s work in Harlem Nights (1989). “That really made it real for me, being able to see Black women of that time and how they moved and spoke,” Ross says. And there’s a bit of Candy, too, in her Roxie, another “woman who knows how to use her wiles to get what she wants.” Roxie’s “world full of yes” is instead a world full of “yaass.”

“It's a great moment to be able to return to a space that I thought I'd have to give up when I chose myself and started transitioning,” Ross says of getting back on stage, which served as a treasured escape from the adversities of growing up at the intersection of marginalized identities. “What I'm experiencing now is an affirmation and a blessing.”

Not that Ross has been one lay in wait for opportunities rather than be her own boss. She is also the founder and CEO of TransTech, an organization that works to empower queer and trans people with tech skills that can lead to economic advancement, a path that she herself followed out of the sex trade. She is executive producing several projects in development and even has an idea for a musical.

“Instead of critiquing what's missing, I've always been about creating solutions,” she says, pointing out that Black queer and trans people have always set cultural trends, whether their influence has been acknowledged or not. “When we center ourselves as I'm starting to do, everyone's invited to the party.”

Angelica Ross Doesn’t Want to Be Called a Trailblazer

Gerson Lopes

It’s all part of what Ross calls “living a life on purpose,” which includes speaking out when some others may have the privilege of staying quiet, and opening the door as wide as possible for more of those who’ve been shut out to walk through. “I’m more and more in alignment when I hear Oprah say, ‘I’m obedient to the call,’” Ross says. “I know that it takes courage, and I know that's why I'm a celebrity — not just because of the roles that I’ve played, but because people are able to celebrate the courage I show in speaking up.”  

And she plans to continue manifesting an even brighter future. “Everything on my dream board is definitely more than a dream,” she says. “I expect to see those things turn into reality.”

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