Twenty-eight year old actress and singer Martina Sykes is a Florida native who's coming home this month on tour with Motown the Musical, the true story of Motown records founder Berry Gordy's journey from featherweight boxer to the heavyweight music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson and many more. Sykes plays several characters in the show and sings in many of the 66 Motown hits featured. We got a chance to ask Sykes a few questions before the show his Jacksonville's Times-Union Center on April 19-24.
You're from Florida originally, right? And you went to UF?
St. Petersburg, yes. I majored in public relations.
Did you take acting classes in college?
They offered African dance and improv and I took those. I wanted a break from it during college because I had done it in elementary, middle and high school. I did mainly vocal and switched to musical theatre in the latter part of my high school.
Do you still live in Florida?
I’ve been on the road for two years, but I’m based out of New York now. I like it. I did a cruise ship before this, so I got used to traveling and being away from home and family. It prepared me for this job. We had a Cirque du Soleil show called Element, we did Shout the Mod Musical, and then we did Band on the Run which was like a '70s variety show. Coincidentally, the choreographer for the Norwegian Cruise Line is the same as for Motown the Musical.
You're in the cast listings as "Ensemble." Do you play a character in Motown?
I play Gwen Gordy, Barry Gordy's sister; Mary Wells, she sings "My Guy"/"Two Lovers"—she was the first number one hit that Motown had; I play one of the Vandellas; and I also sing as Cindy Birdsong, who was a replacement of Florence Ballard in The Supremes.
That's a lot of characters. Is it hard switching between them in just a few minutes?
The clothes help a lot. They’re very different. Gwen Gordy’s clothes are very different from someone like Mary Wells. Mary Wells has a long mermaid gown and all Gwen’s dresses are above the knee. So when you change wigs and you change costumers that helps you to realize that "Okay, I’m this character." In the rehearsal it was very clear. Every time, you had that moment to get yourself together after the clothes have been put on. You take a moment to center yourself for the scene.
Which one's your favorite?
Mary Wells. The way she gets announced is as "The Queen of Motown." She also has a very commanding presence, so when she comes out, she takes the audience completely by surprise. She commands everybody's attention.
Are you a fan of Motown music?
I've loved Motown music since I was a child because my parents introduced us to it early on.
Do you have a favorite Motown song?
I love hearing Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me" and [Smokey Robinson's] "Hold On Me." I hadn’t really heard "Hold On Me" until the show, and once I did I was like, "Oh, I love this song."
What can people expect from the play? Any surprises in store?
I think the audience will be interested in how many songs we fit in that short of time. It’s over 60 songs. I think they’ll also be surprised with how spot on everyone is, they really embody the artists—they capture the essence of them back in that time. And especially like our young Michael Jacksons, they are absolutely amazing. People can’t even believe how much they sound like him and have the moves down like him. Be prepared to learn about Berry Gordy’s life story, how much the company meant and how it’s chanced the face of American music. And also just be ready to dance, sing, clap along.
What's your dream role?
I don’t think it’s been invented yet. I’m not sure because when I think of ideal roles it would just have to be something that really excites me, something complex. something creatively challenging. But I don’t have any one thing in mind. I did hear that they’re in the process of making a Tina Turner musical and that would be really exciting because I love Tina Turner.
Anything else you'd like to tell us?
I’m just excited to come back to Jacksonville. That’s where my dad was born and raised and I have so many family ties there. It’s always a special treat to be able to perform for your family. When you’re able to bring it back home it’s a sense of pride.