“I still think it’s a joke,” says Amber Iman, who is making her Broadway debut in the new musical “Soul Doctor” as the legendary jazz singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Iman, who just moved to New York from Atlanta a little over eighteen months ago, is on cloud nine. “It’s been this whirlwind, overnight, life-changing ride.”
You can even tell how happy Iman is just from her voicemail message, which rings full of laughter: “Hi, this is Amber! I’m in rehearsal. Leave a message!”
“Soul Doctor,” which opens Thursday, charts the rise of rock star rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the father of popular Jewish music. At the center of Shlomo’s journey is Nina Simone, who inspired and helped to shape his music.
With a few Off-Broadway credits to her name, including “Rent” at New World Stages and “A Civil War Christmas” at New York Theater Workshop, Iman had given herself five years to be on Broadway. “I was guessing five years I’ll be in the ensemble, Tree #3, on Broadway and it will be great! So, to go from what I thought I would be to the actual reality of actually being Nina Simone on Broadway…it’s crazy,” she says.
We chatted with Iman about the importance of breaking from the mold, researching the role, and enjoying the ride.
Break from the Mold.
For Iman, keeping her expectations realistic was essential when she moved to New York. “The most important thing is you have to make a realistic goal and a plan that works for you,” she explains. While all her friends were planning on moving to New York City, Iman decided to head back home to Atlanta, Georgia for a few years.
“I didn’t feel like I was ready for NY,” Iman says, having little money saved, no Equity card, and a thin resume. “I knew I could work Atlanta and make Atlanta work for me.” Though Iman was stranger to the theater scene, having grown up watching her mother, actress Margo Moorer, perform.
Iman had to learn to ignore what others said about her, though. “When I decided not to go to New York, a lot of people started talking,” says Iman, recounting how many of her friends thought she was scared, and wouldn’t do anything with her life. “It was hard to hear a lot of that from people I thought were my friends,” Iman says, but she didn’t let that keep her down for long. “I knew me, and I knew what I needed, and I knew what would be best for me,” she says. “I broke out from the mold, I went home and what I said I would do, I did.
“You just have to know if you put in the work, if you take the time with yourself, forget what everyone else is doing,” Iman often tells young actors. “If you’re trying to win a Tony in a year, like calm down!”
“It’s always hard when you play somebody who lived and walked the earth,” Iman says. Before she was cast in “Soul Doctor,” Iman was “superficially aware” of Nina Simone, familiar with her hits like “I Put a Spell on You,” that she played the piano, and was a great singer/songwriter. It was only after reading Simone’s autobiography did Iman reach a deeper understanding of the woman. “I didn’t know the in-depth level of the kind of woman, activist, mother, and force that Nina Simone was,” Iman says. After discussing the role with director Daniel S. Wise, Iman realized that she didn’t “need to be the spitting image of her,” but she had to present the soul of Nina Simone.
Nina Simone made it easy for Iman, too. “The great thing about an artist like Nina is you put in a CD, and you feel like you’re having a conversation with her,” Iman says. “Artists today, you don’t know who the heck they are, what they stand for, what they would die for. Nothing. But if you listen to any of Nina’s records, you feel like she’s in your living room, you feel like you know everything about her, everything she’s been through.”
Don’t Get Discouraged.
New York City is cold and lonely and hard. It’s easy to get discouraged. “There were days where I would have $5 and I’d have an audition,” Iman says, and she would have to choose buying a Metro Card to get to the audition and skip dinner that night. “I was really stressed out when I first moved up here. I developed a stomach ulcer and I was worried and not eating.”
Iman learned early on that when the odds are against you, but you have to keep fighting. One of her worst happened after returning from Europe as one of Lauryn Hill’s background vocalist. Iman had an audition for “The Book of Mormon” the following afternoon at 2 p.m., after getting in late Saturday night. The morning of the audition, Iman headed to her storage unit in New Jersey to pick up her audition book, when she realized she couldn’t find the key.
After calling a locksmith and she rushed home, realized she had lost the MetroCard she had just bought that morning and had to buy another. “I have spent $150 on a locksmith, I’ve lost a $112 Metro Card and I had only been in NY for 3 months, so I didn’t know you could like cancel the Metro Card so I’m spending like $400 in one day,” Iman says.
Bookless, Iman ran to the nearest Staples, printed a random song and bought a notebook and just enough sheet protectors for the music. “It was the nuttiest, most stressful day, but hey, stuff like this happens, life goes on, and I got a callback,” Iman says, with a laugh. “You can’t make this crap up.”
Enjoy the Ride.
For Iman, Broadway isn’t that different from Off-Broadway. “At the end of the day, it’s all work. At the end of the day, you have a story, you have a director, and you have actors to tell a story,” Iman says. Though the pressure is different, being on Broadway is just being “lifted a few steps higher.” Iman is grateful to “be allowed this space and opportunity to tell a wonderful story. “
“It’s a family,” Iman says. “We all have a good time, we’re all great friends together, and we all go out at the end of the night and hang out together.”
From surviving on $1 Pizza to playing Nina Simone on Broadway, Iman is proof that with hard work, perseverance, and guts, you can be living the dream.