Long before her thundering alto and radiant stage presence made her a Tony Award nominee and one of Chicago’s brightest musical theater stars, Felicia P. Fields was an investigator for the Chicago Park District. It wasn’t as cloak-and-dagger as it sounds.
“Me and this guy named Percy were in internal investigations. We’d find people sleeping on the clock or whatever. That sort of thing,” she said. “We were hated. But we were both aspiring actors, and the schedule was just enough so that we were able to do the thing we really wanted to do.”
More than three decades since she left the park district’s employ, Fields has done the thing she really wanted, playing leading ladies from August Wilson’s Ma Rainey to Thornton Wilder’s Dolly Levi. Over the course of her career, she’s collected a Clarence Derwent Award, multiple Black Theatre Alliance and Joseph Jefferson awards, and years of critical accolades from across the country.
On March 20, Fields will pick up yet another trophy, Porchlight Music Theatre’s annual Guy Adkins Award for Excellence in the Advancement of Music Theatre in Chicago. Fields — who earned a 2006 Tony nomination for creating the role of Sofia in the musical adaptation of “The Color Purple” — says she finds inspiration in the award named for a peer she valued in life. Adkins died of colon cancer in 2010, after almost 20 years as one of Chicago’s best song-and-dance men.
“This award, it’s been the lift that I needed at this particular time,” Fields said. “It’s God saying, ‘Hey, maybe we can keep this party going.’ ”
The award presentation is part of Porchlight’s annual Chicago Sings fund-raising concert, this year themed to feature rock ’n’ roll’s influence on Broadway. The concert — featuring numbers from the 2020 Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill” among others — will be available via stream through April 18.
“For me, this past year has been a time of reflection, of recognizing your journey,” Fields continued. “I think of how hard this business is and how you have so many lows and so many highs and how your talent alone is a small part of what happens; it might get you somewhere, but it won’t always help you stay there. You have to treat people with respect, especially yourself. “
The Porchlight award will be presented by Gary Griffin, who won it last year and who directed Fields in “The Color Purple.” Fields credits Griffin with more than helping her raise her national profile. As the artistic director of the Drury Lane Theatre in the 1990s, Griffin was the first to hire her to work at the west-suburban venue, Fields said.
“I believe that the steps of a righteous man are ordered by God and I believe I didn’t meet Gary Griffin by chance but by design,” Fields said. “He took a chance on me in a place that wasn’t necessarily conducive to gender or racial diversity. I found myself working harder with Gary because he saw something in me that I didn’t always see in myself.”
Griffin’s take: “All I did was put her in front of people. She did all the rest.”
Fields recalled her earliest encouragement coming from three invaluable sources: The Englewood Antioch Baptist Church where she sang, powerhouse singer/actor E. Faye Butler, and composer Rufus Hill.
“I happened to be singing in church the day Julie Shannon came to look for vocalists to record a demo for her new musical, ‘Stones,’” Fields said, adding that her pastor had been friends with Shannon’s husband. After the service, Shannon asked Fields to come record those demos, and then cast her in the Bailiwick Theatre’s production of “Stones.” That show also featured Butler and Hill, both of whom subsequently told Fields to audition at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Fields was cast as Glinda and Auntie Em in a 1987 staging of “The Wiz,” opposite Butler’s Addaperle/Evillene.
“I had just seen E. Faye in ‘A My Name Is Alice’ at the old Ivanhoe,” Fields recalled, “And now we’re co-starring in the same show. It just goes to show you never know who you’re going to be working with next.”
Fields has covered vast ground since that inaugural role, steadily working at the city’s largest houses including the Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Northlight and Writers theaters among them. The Broadway run and the glitz of Tony season were fun, Fields said, but she never considered leaving her home base of Chicago.
As for the award she is receiving, Fields remembers Guy Adkins as a colleague with an impish wit and a remarkable talent, and said she treasures being the recipient of his namesake honor.
“He was so mischievous. You never saw him when he wasn’t smiling or joking around. I didn’t know Clarence Derwent or Antoinette Perry. I [didn’t] know Joseph Jefferson. But I did know Guy Adkins, and I know what it’s like to be acknowledged by your peers like this. It feels good,” she said.