Ann Nesby on Playing Grandma in ‘Tina,’ That ‘Queen Sugar’ finale and duetting with Sheryl Lee Ralph
With a singing and acting career now spanning 30 years, Fayetteville resident and reigning Queen of Inspirational Soul Ann Nesby is busier than ever. For starters, she’s in the middle of a 30-city tour playing Anna-Mae Bullock’s Gran Georgeanna in the national tour of the Broadway hit “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre through Sunday. Between co-writing hits for Gladys Knight and Patti Labelle, touring in Tyler Perry plays, cutting duets with Sting and Al Green and being one of the iconic voices behind two-time Grammy winning The Sounds of Blackness, Nesby has also released eight solo albums since 1996.
Eldredge ATL caught up with Nesby (who we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing now for over 20 years) as she was indulging in a leftover lunch of fried chicken and red beans and rice while “Tina” played New Orleans this month.
In addition to her role in the crowd-pleasing Broadway musical, we dished together on her home healthcare character’s big surprise in the series finale of the OWN original series “Queen Sugar,” cutting a Christmas duet with Emmy winner Sheryl Lee Ralph, playing opposite Lou Gossett Jr. and the now-late Michael K. Williams in the Netflix series “Hap & Leonard” and being directed by Childish Gambino himself, Donald Glover during the final season of “Atlanta.”
But naturally, the first thing on both of our minds was food.
Rich Eldredge: You’re coming home to Atlanta when “Tina” plays the Fox Theatre for a week. This is your home turf so the pressure’s on — where will you be suggesting your castmates go for lunch?
Ann Nesby: (laughs) Well, still my favorite, of course, is K&K [Soul Food on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway] and also Tropical Isles Caribbean Restaurant [in Riverdale]. You know I love my jerk chicken, Rich! They are authentic and the best, hands down, as far as I’m concerned.
Eldredge: The itinerary for this 30-city “Tina” national tour is exhausting just to read. What’s the secret for keeping yourself well on a tour like this?
Nesby: Just being with all of the talented young people in this show. They range in age from nine to my age. These dancers have graduated from Julliard and Howard. I’m telling you, you have to see these young people perform. They are truly amazing. This nine year old, Ayvah Johnson, who plays Anna-Mae, Tina, as a girl? She is one to watch. She’s going to be a household name. When she hits the stage at the top of the show, she lights it up.
Eldredge: I had the pleasure of interviewing “Tina” book writer Katori Hall back in 2012 when her play “The Mountaintop” was first staged in Atlanta. When Hall and Turner sat down together to envision this show, Tina told Katori, “I wonder if people will be able to sit in a theater and see the truth about my life and not be uncomfortable.” And Katori told her, “I think it’s good to make people uncomfortable. What you went through was traumatic.” What’s it like to put that reality on stage each night?
Nesby: That is so powerful because every night I watch the show and it gives me more reason to continue my career. Tina, as a woman and an icon of this industry, burst down walls for all of us. It’s important to see where she came from and what she faced. When you see that she was given away by both her mother and father and raised by her grandmother, through the trials of living in the South and Jim Crow and the abuse by Ike. And yet, she inspired the entire world. To see that come to life every night, it’s moving. You laugh, you cry and you are inspired.
Eldredge: We’ve had a lot of conversations over the years about your childhood and how church and hymns were basically your entire life. When did you get exposed to your first Ike and Tina Turner records?
Nesby: My aunts and uncles were like teens in my home when they came from the South to live with my parents. They were Tina Turner fans. By the 1970s, I was able to sneak around and listen to the music of my choice so I was able to hear the music I loved. Good powerful soulful music. I was listening to, as my dad put it, the devil’s music. (laughs). I was taking in all of that Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Patti Labelle!
Eldredge: You have a song in the first act, “Don’t Turn Around,” that was originally released in 1986 on her “Break Every Rule” album but it’s been reimagined as number for her grandmother to say, “This is your destiny,” right?
Nesby: Exactly. This is your destiny. After her parents leave her, her grandmother is always there. But when it comes time for Gran Georgeanna to take her final bow in Tina’s life, this is the scene. I’m telling her, if you stay, there’s nothing here for you. I have a line that I tell her, “They say Memphis is where it’s at but maybe not if you’re a colored girl with dreams. You need to go on to Saint Louis now.” I love that moment in the show.
Eldredge: I can’t talk to Ann Nesby in 2023 and not bring up the finale of “Queen Sugar” and Sandy and Prosper’s jumping the broom! Did you feel the audience rooting for that?
Nesby: I did! I felt it and used that energy to tell that story. It was so important to let older folks know your life is not over and that you can still find love and that there’s still life for you. When they told me about this role, I was all in. I was only supposed to do that one scene as a home nurse. And the chemistry was so wonderful and vibrant between [Henry G. Sanders] and I, the lights came on and the writers started working that relationship.
Eldredge: Not only did Ava DuVernay direct the finale of the show but who was the first person to post on your Instagram when you shared the photo of your character’s wedding? Ava DuVernay.
Nesby: To have her comment, just filled my heart. Out of all the busy things she’s doing but to take the time to do that? It speaks volumes about who she is. She chose all women to direct the series. It was so powerful. I felt so honored to be a part of that.
Eldredge: Many of us think of you first as a singer, but you had a scene in the 2018 Netflix series “Hap & Leonard” that just floored me. You play the mysterious Blind Tillie in a scene with the late Michael K. Williams and Lou Gossett Jr. A camera circles the table throughout so it had to be shot in one continuous take. It’s a terrific example of you bringing your acting A-game, my friend!
Nesby: (laughs) That was a moment for me, adoring and respecting Lou Gossett as I do. He’s a pillar of our acting community. Working with all of the actors on that show was a blessing. I was like, “Lord, I’m on here with these powerhouses, you got to give me something!” It was all God. I was dependent on him. When they told me it was going to be shot non-stop and it was just going to be hit, hit, hit — shot that way to specifically create a mood for that scene — I knew I had to bring it.
Eldredge: Just before Christmas, Sheryl Lee Ralph dropped a present for fans with her “Sleigh” holiday album. And who is duetting with “Abbott Elementary’s” own Barbara Howard on “O Come All Ye Faithful” but you! How did that come about?
Nesby: I love “Abbott Elementary.” That was such a gift to me. I had worked with B. Slade [formerly known as gospel singer Tonex] who masterminds for Patti Labelle. I had been friends with Sheryl Lee Ralph for years and years doing her [annual AIDS benefit] “Divas Simply Singing.” When B. Slade called, he said, “Sheryl is working on a Christmas album and I mentioned I might be able to get you.’” I told him, “Sheryl and I have been friends forever. What do you need me to do?” I happened to be in Baltimore and Sheryl was in California and we just did our parts and the technology put us together. In this business, you have your up and your down times. To be able to share that with her during her up time, was a blessing.
Eldredge: You also popped up in the last season of “Atlanta,” playing Evelyn Washington! How did that guest spot come about?
Nesby: Rich, that was a real present because I love watching “Atlanta.” I love the way Donald Glover shoots the series. When I got the call, I had no idea I would be shooting with him. When I got on set, He was standing there. He told me, “I’m going to shoot this a bit differently. I’ll sit on the other side of the camera and we’ll go line by line.” Well, when I started doing [the monologue], he said, “Wait, you know this whole thing?” and I said, “Yes, of course.” He said, “OK, just talk to me, don’t worry about the lines, just insert the feeling.” And that’s how we shot it together. Donald Glover is a genius. He is one of the most incredible directors I’ve ever worked with.
Eldredge: Wrapping up, I want to ask you about the audiences for “Tina.” This musical is a lot to take in. Do reactions vary by city or it is pretty uniform?
Nesby: It’s pretty uniform. It’s a party every night, OK? The audience gets it. At the end of the show, when we get to that “Proud Mary” [curtain call] there is not a person sitting in that theatre, I don’t care where we are. Everybody is on their feet, dancing and singing. I can’t wait for you and Atlanta to see it.
Ann Nesby plays Gran Georgeanna in the national tour of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” playing at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 26. Go to the Fox website for tickets and more info. You can follow Ann Nesby on Instagram and Facebook and subscribe to her newsletter by visiting her official website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.