Frenchie Davis is not
afraid to get personal.
In The View UpStairs, a provocative new off-Broadway musical set in 1970’s New Orleans, Davis plays the owner of the gay bar where the show takes place. Directed by Scott Ebersold and with music, book and lyrics by Max Vernon, The View UpStairs tells a poignant tale that not only examines the past, but explores how the lessons learned then can guide us in the fight for equality that still persists today.
Davis herself is bisexual and has deep family connections to The Big Easy. In her quest to bring The View UpStairs to life, she felt inspired by her own history to inform who her character is and why this story is so important for contemporary audiences. We spoke in detail about this journey, the role of art in today’s world, her days as a contestant on both American Idol and The Voice, and much more.
NAGORSKI: What has been the most exciting part about returning to the New Year theater scene?
DAVIS: The most exciting part of all of this, I think, has been being able to bring the character, Henri, to life and being able to be a part of telling this story.
The View UpStairs is inspired by one of the most significant yet all-but-ignored attacks against the LGBTQ community. As an LGBT woman yourself, you’ve been a vocal advocate for the community throughout your career. Is this what attracted you to this show?
Partially. I was attracted to this show because I thought the storytelling was witty and beautiful. I believed that this is such an important piece of our history and was really honored to have been considered for it.
How does Henri differ from other characters you’ve played on stage?
Well, she’s this no-nonsense, leather-wearing black motorcycle lesbian running a gay bar in the South in the 70s. Let’s start there! But underneath all of that tough exterior, she’s vulnerable and she loves very deeply the community of people who frequent the lounge.
What do you think audience members can learn from The View UpStairs about the fight for equality today?
So much of the dialogue in the show reminds me that even though it may often feel like we haven’t progressed at all, we have actually come a long way. We have a loooooooong way to go, but we have progressed and we should never take for granted the sacrifices those before us have made to ensure that progress.
The View UpStairs takes place in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Have you ever been to New Orleans? If so, how did that experience inform your interpretation of your character/this show?
Yes, I travel to New Orleans often actually. I have family there and it is a place of such rich history. It’s the birthplace of jazz! It’s the only place where slaves were allowed to maintain and practice many of the cultural traditions they carried with them from West Africa. My grandmother got her doctorate in pharmacy in New Orleans! It was the closest city to her hometown where a black woman would have even been allowed to obtain a degree in any medical field.
So I carry all of that with me in bringing Henri to life. Yes, on the surface, the upstairs lounge is a shitty hole-in-the-wall gay bar. But for Henri, it’s a home. It’s a place she takes a tremendous amount of pride in. She’s a black lesbian in the south in the 70s, and yet here she is, running this business and using it as a safe haven for her LGBT brothers and sisters. These are the types of things that helped me to interpret the character of Henri and the show in its entirety.
As a vocalist, what are the most challenging aspects of singing Max Vernon’s score?
Belting F sharps!
Fashion plays a large part in this show as well. Do you have a favorite costume or look that you get to wear?
Well, Henri’s wardrobe is nothing like the stuff I like to wear. Although I have become a fan of the skinny black Levi 512s she wears. I can’t breathe! But I look good!
The show spans two generations of queer history. Who are some historic figures that have influenced you in your personal life?
Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Hattie McDaniel, and Bessie Smith to name a few.
The View UpStairs runs through May 21. Do you already have a sense of where your fans can catch you next after this show wraps?
Probably singing at Pride festivals and doing my cabaret act at various performance spaces across the country.
Simply speaking as a theater fan, what’s your favorite show currently playing on Broadway?
That’s impossible to answer! I love so many of them. All for different reasons.
You’ve been a part of several iconic musicals, including Rent, Dreamgirls and Cinderella. What is your musical theater dream role?
Oh my god, Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!
As someone who competed on both American Idol and The Voice, which show do you think shaped who you are as a performer more?
Neither of them shaped me as a performer. I was on TV for five minutes. I’ve been doing professional theater for fifteen years.
In 2012, you released your debut solo single, “Love’s Got A Hold On Me,” which went on to peak at #12 on the Billboard Dance Chart. Do you have any plans to release any other new solo music anytime soon? If so, do you plan to continue releasing dance music or are there other genres you’d like to tackle as well?
Well, I will always continue to do dance music. But I would love to do some ‘30s jazz/songbook stuff, as well as some soulful pop stuff. I also love trap music!
You’ve got two new movies coming out this year – We Are Family and Snapshots. As an actress, do you feel more drawn to the stage or to the screen? Why?
We Are Family! Oh my god, I filmed that like 7 years ago! I love both but theater is my first love. It’s what made me want to be a performer in the first place.
As a nation, we are going through some horribly dark, terrifying and divided times. What do you think the role of art is (or should be) as a form of making people feel safer and bringing them together? In other words, do you believe that art has a duty beyond escapism?
Art has always had a duty beyond escapism. I think that it is my responsibility as an artist, particularly as a queer artist of color, to use whatever platform I have to be a voice for justice and equality.
What’s your favorite thing to do to unwind after a show?
I love to come home after a show and listen to my ‘30s/’40s Jazz music playlist while engaging in herbal refreshments or alcohol drinking. Or both!
The View UpStairs “TAKES YOUR BREATH AWAY!” (Time Out New York).
This provocative new musical pulls you inside the UpStairs Lounge, a vibrant ’70s gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The forgotten community comes to life when a young fashion designer from 2017 buys the abandoned space, setting off an exhilarating journey of seduction and self-exploration that Entertainment Weekly calls “a moving homage to LGBT culture, past and present.” Filled with “beautiful love songs performed by a soulful ensemble cast” (The New Yorker), it’s “an eye-popping roller coaster for the visual senses” with “a jambalaya of sexed-up tunes! Sung by an outstanding cast, The View UpStairs has all of the ingredients for an iconic cult phenomenon!” (Edge Media Network).
PHOTOS | KURT SNEDDON