Donica Lynn, who is currently giving a showstopping performance as the talented but “difficult” Effie in Porchlight Music Theatre’s revival of “Dreamgirls,” had no intention of making a career in the theater.
“I performed in school productions, but I was a scholar headed for law school,” said Lynn, who grew up on Chicago’s West Pearson Street. “I really just tripped and fell into the theater, and I embraced it, just as it embraced me. Every time I thought: ‘Okay, time to go back to school,’ I would get a knock on the door and someone would say, ‘Hey, we have a show for you.’ I am so lucky, so blessed, because since 1996 I have been able to make a living working as an actress, and never had to take the usual day job.”
To be sure she had plenty of other distractions. Although at 42 Lynn easily could pass for a solid decade younger, she is the mother of three children: A 20-year-old daughter, Aerial, currently studying international business in Sweden; a 15-year-old son, Sabastian, involved in music, dance, writing and the backstage aspects of theater; and a 9-year-old daughter, Sidra, whom she home schools (and who recently had a role in Porchlight’s production of “Far from Heaven”).
Lynn also is a three-time brain cancer survivor, who had her first scare at age 12 (the tumor was benign, and removed), another tumor in the same location in 2010 (also removed), and then, a few years ago, discovered the mass had returned (at which point she opted for chemo and radiation treatments rather than surgery).
“I have seizures and other side-effects, but it hasn’t stopped me,” said Lynn. “At times it slows me down, but I find I’m better off when I’m doing something, so I keep working.”
In fact, in October 2013, while undergoing yet another round of treatment, the idea for a benefit concert for all those battling cancer came to her. Now in its fourth year, the latest edition of that concert, “Today’s a Good Day — Walk With Me,” is scheduled for May 2 at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport, where she will be joined by many friends. As Lynn describes it: “It’s separated into four categories — diagnosis, treatment, aftercare, survival — and is the story of any medical journey told in song.” (For tickets call (773) 325-1700 or visit mercurytheaterchicago.com. A portion of the proceeds benefit the American Brain Tumor Association and the American Cancer Society.)
When: Through May 22
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $35 – $51
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Director-choreographer Brenda Didier describe Donica in this way: “She is a special woman, friend, mother and cancer fighter. Her diagnosis does not define her; her spirit does. At the ‘Dreamgirls’ callbacks, Donica came in and sang the same three songs as everyone else, and when she left the room we all sat there in stunned silence. It wasn’t just her voice that overwhelmed us, but the way she told her story. She wasn’t copying anyone. She was not trying to be Jennifer Holliday [star of the original Broadway production], or Jennifer Hudson [who played Effie in the Oscar-winning film]. She is true to herself as an artist, and that is why she is Effie. She follows her heart in life and on the stage. She is truly unique and special.”
So how did Lynn’s career get started? “A member of my church, McKinley Johnson, came to me with ‘Train is Comin’,’ a beautiful piece of work he’d written, and asked me to participate in a reading,” she said. “The show was then produced by the now-defunct Chicago Theatre Company [where such burgeoning talents as Chester Gregory II and Nambi Kelley were part of the cast], and ran for almost four months.”
From there she began to work at ETA Creative Arts, as both performer and teacher.
“Musical theater was never my goal, either,” said Lynn, whose spectacular vocal and emotional renderings of such “Dreamgirls” songs as “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” “I Am Changing,” “One Night Only” and “Faith in Myself” might well leave you totally gobsmacked. (She credits Chicago divas Felicia P. Fields and E. Faye Butler with teaching her how to preserve her voice.)
A featured vocalist on albums by Ramsey Lewis, Calvin Bridges, Justin Roberts and Chicago actress Cory Goodrich, Lynn has appeared in “The Color Purple” and “Barnum” at The Mercury Chicago Theater; “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Hairspray” and “Aida” at Drury Lane Oakbrook; “Caroline, or Change” at Court Theatre; as well as at Marriott Theatre, the Goodman, TimeLine and many others, with a rare foray into opera by way of “Queenie Pie” (produced by Chicago Opera Theatre).
As for dream roles: “It would be wonderful to explore Elphaba [in “Wicked”), or Dolly Levi [in “Hello, Dolly!”], or Nancy [in “Oliver!”]. And yes, I did audition for ‘Hamilton.’ But mostly I wait for a role to find me, and then I find the character. And right now I am having such an amazing time with Effie — a woman who has so much empathy for everyone in her family, who I see as a sad rather than angry, and who has so much humanity in her.”