Arts and Culture

Cynthia Erivo Knows When to Say No – but She Said Yes to Denver

Cynthia Erivo is coming to Denver.
Cynthia Erivo is coming to Denver. Colorado Symphony
Cynthia Erivo, a 2020 Academy Award nominee for her performance in Harriet, and a Tony, Emmy and Grammy award-winning English performer, is on her way to Denver for an evening with the Colorado Symphony. On February 15, for one night only, she'll treat the crowd to songs made famous by Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Beyoncé, and other remarkable artists.

In advance of this performance, Erivo made time for a few minutes with Westword to speak about the songs she'll perform in Colorado, her Academy nominations, and the long road ahead for the inclusion of people of color in the arts.

Westword: Is your performance in Denver part of a symphony tour, or is it a special event?

Cynthia Erivo: It's not a tour specifically. It just happens to be one event in Denver that I'm lucky enough to do.

"Stand Up," one of your original songs from Harriet, is up for the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song), and your performance as Harriet Tubman is up for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. How does that feel?

It feels amazing. The idea that something that is part of me and my music being honored in this way is very special. It's a dream come true. I didn't know that this was going to happen, so I'm more than pleased to be part of it. It's just crazy.

Are all of the songs on your Colorado setlist songs that you chose specifically for this performance?

Yes, yes they are. I selected them because I love them, and I thought that they were songs that I've been singing for a while and songs that I've wanted to sing and haven't had the chance to sing.

You turned down an offer to perform at the 2020 BAFTA awards due to a lack of diversity in the nominations. [
No performers of color were up for any acting awards, across four categories.] How do you feel about the diversity in this year’s Academy nominations?

This year's Academy's does leave something to be desired, that's for sure. There's definitely work to be done.... I hope that where we are right now gives us a reason to look at how we're celebrating the works that people of color do, making sure that there's room for us, making sure that we get to create and tell those stories. I don't know that it's an equal playing field when it comes to that at all. So hopefully that may change.

Do you think the U.S. and Britain are comparable in their need to address diversity and representation in the arts?

I do think so, but I think that the U.S. is at least having the conversation. I think that the UK is not having the conversation loud enough. So we're still having situations where we're not even acknowledging the fact that there is a lack of diversity in certain things. So I'm hoping that, across the board, the conversation becomes one that is important, and urgent, and clear.

You’ve been a successful stage actor, screen actor and singer. Is there one type of performance that feels most like your medium?

No. The dream for me was to be able to do it all. One of my idols is Barbra Streisand, and I believe that she's been able to cover all mediums really beautifully. I wanted that to be what my life, what my legacy was about. A person who was able to create across all mediums and do good work.

Harriet was an incredibly moving film. Why is hers an important story to revisit today?

It's important to see women of color, black women specifically, in the center of their narrative with agency, with power, with strength. I do believe that it is important now more than ever, when rights are being taken away from women, that women get to see themselves –– black women get to see themselves –– taking power for themselves. And I think that it opens the doors to think about the way in which black people have been treated over time and how change needs to happen. It's also important that we remember who Harriet was, because her legacy is dying...and people don't know about her. I think that telling her story brings up the curiosity in people to go and find out who she was – because she was a hero.

There was an interesting moment in Harriet where Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) tells Harriet to go and wash up because she stinks from her journey north, to freedom. Although Marie says it lightheartedly, Harriet responds that, being born a free woman, Ms. Buchanon is lucky to have never known "the stink of fear." That scene made me wonder how allies should go about effecting meaningful change, having not lived the direct experience of oppression.

Speaking out about what they see. We had a really great moment at the BAFTAs where Joaquin Phoenix spoke on what he had seen, what he was noticing in and around Hollywood, the BAFTAs, wherever. About the lack of diversity, about the way that looks to the world. I think he put it really succinctly when he said that, "We make people feel like they don't belong and that we don't want them here when we never celebrate them and we never invite them." And I thought that was a really great way of putting it. And the thing is, as an is those who speak up that aren't in the situation, who are always heard louder. Because they have no stake in the matter. Their stake in the matter is humanity. It doesn't seem like it's a selfish cry. I think the more voices we have, the sooner it is that something is going to change. And if your voice is one that is not marginalized, and you can speak on the fact that there are marginalized people, it's important that you speak on it.

Is there anything else you'd like to touch on?

I just hope people come and enjoy [the show in Denver] and are comfortable enough to sing along.

Here's the complete setlist for Legendary Women's Voices: An Evening with Cynthia Erivo:

George Gershwin, "Strike up the Band"
Franz Schubert, arranged by Hazell, Ave Maria
Nina Simone, arranged by Jeremy Levy, “I Put a Spell on You"
Nina Simone, arranged by Jeremy Levy, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
Billie Holiday, arranged by Sean O’Loughlin, “Stormy Weather”
Billie Holiday, arranged by Skitch Henderson/Nick Greer, “Summertime”
Aretha Franklin, arranged by Nick Greer, “Ain’t No Way”
Aretha Franklin, arranged by Nick Greer, “I Never Loved a Man”
Gladys Knight, arranged by Sam Hyken, “Midnight Train to Georgia”
Price, Symphony No. 3, Mvt. 3: Finale
Leonard Bernstein, “Take Care of This House” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Nina Simone, arranged by Adam Podd, “No Me Quitte Pas”
Nina Simone, arranged by Jeremy Levy, “Feeling Good”
Etta James, arranged by Eric Allen, “All I Could Do Was Cry”
Etta James, arranged by Eric Allen, “At Last”
Shirley Bassey, arranged by Fred Barton/Nick Greer, “I Who Have Nothing”
Rodgers & Hammerstein, arranged by Nick Greer, “Edelweiss”
Beyoncé, arranged by David Hamilton/Nick Greer, “I Was Here”

Cynthia Erivo will be at the Boettcher Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. on February 15. Tickets can be found on the Colorado Symphony website, by phone at 303-623-7876, and in-person at the Boettcher Concert Hall Box Office.

Listen to Cynthia Erivo and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.
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Lauren Antonoff is a Denver native dedicated to telling Colorado stories. She loves all things multi-media, and can often be found tinkering in digital collage. She joined the Westword team in 2019, where she serves as the Audience Engagement Editor — connecting people, ideas, and the stories that matter.
Contact: Lauren Antonoff