Tony-nominated Broadway star Valisia LeKae hopes that the ending to her story will be happy and full of light, like some of the shows she has been in.
An ensemble actor who has performed in musicals such as “The Book of Mormon” and “Ragtime,” she broke into stage stardom last year for her role as Diana Ross in “Motown the Musical,” a widely praised performance that garnered her a Tony nod. But then things came to a sudden halt in December.
That’s when LeKae went in for a routine checkup with her gynecologist. Her doctor found that a cyst on her ovary had become enlarged. Further tests revealed, 10 days later, that she had ovarian cancer.
“It was devastating, really,” said LeKae, 34. “My symptoms were all silent. I had no back pain. I didn’t feel abnormal bloating. I thought this was something that happened to older women.”
She left the show, and her career, to dedicate her energies to healing herself. But the diagnosis, and the subsequent rounds of treatment, including chemotherapy, have given her a greater appreciation for life, she said.
LeKae flies into the Twin Cities this weekend to headline a gala for the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance. She will give an inspirational talk and may deliver a song a cappella.
“Music has been my life, and I’ve still got the gift,” she said. “I’ve also got my faith.”
That faith is what has carried her all the way from Memphis, where she was born, to Broadway. LeKae, whose birth name is Little, grew up in a home steeped in gospel, stories and music. Her mother, grandfather and older relatives all styled hair for a living. They also are devout Christians who perform in churches and encouraged Valisia’s singing even as they taught her to be practical.
She majored in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Family members “all wanted me to have a career, and they didn’t know much about life in theater,” she said. “I didn’t, either.”
LeKae’s trajectory to stage has come through on-the-job training. She never really thought of theater as a career, even though she performed, as a teenager, at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s Tennessee theme park.
“It has 600 to 800 seats, which is the size of many regional theaters, and we made pretty good money,” she said.
When she did dream about music later in life, it was as a recording artist, like Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Diana Ross.
“I was obsessed with [Ross] as a child,” she said. “I would wear these outfits that were like hers and I would be singing my heart out around my grandfather’s hair salon.”
Ross came onstage on opening night of “Motown,” giving LeKae a hug that she does not remember. She was so in awe.
After her recent round of treatment, LeKae is cancer-free at the moment. Ovarian cancer, however, often returns.
“I’m very grateful to God that I’ve been given an opportunity to speak about my journey and ovarian cancer,” she said. “I can reach a different demographic. Although you typically don’t hear about this cancer being diagnosed in someone 34 or younger, it can happen to anyone.”
Not just older women
“One of our members is a 17-year-old high-school student,” said Kathleen Gavin, executive director of the alliance. “I lived in New York [City] during the ’80s, when AIDS was raging and had such a high fatality rate. Ovarian cancer is somewhat like that today. It’s often fatal. Angelina Jolie’s mom died of it. So did Obama’s mom and Coretta Scott King. It affects everyone.”
The alliance raises awareness about the disease. It also supports research, awarding over $4.5 million to research projects over the past 14 years.
Nationally, about 21,980 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, and 14,270 die from it. In Minnesota, about 400 new cases are diagnosed each year and 240 women die from it. The five-year survival rate is 44 percent. Ovarian cancer occurs mainly in older women; half of the new diagnoses are for ages 63 or older.
For LeKae, there are grace notes to be found in her diagnosis.
“As a child, I dreamed of inspiring others,” she said. “My life has taken a different turn than I imagined. It’s the scenic route. But I’m still going where God intended for me to go, and I want to help as many people as I can along the way.”
“The life of an actor is never going to be easy,” LeKae said. “You’re constantly going in front of people, trying to prove that you can be what they want you to be. This cancer has taught me that I’m enough.”