by Melissa Griegel . . .
Amber Iman (Shuffle Along, Soul Doctor) took a deep, hard look at herself during the pandemic, and asked herself why she doesn’t always enjoy performing, even though that’s her chosen career path. The answer, she shared with the audience at Feinstein’s/54 Below on August 12, has a lot to do with her upbringing in the south. As a “tall Black girl with natural hair at White school,” she wasn’t always received well by her peers. That brought about a lot of self-doubt and self-esteem issues.
She found her home at Howard University, where she graduated magna cum laude with a BFA in Musical Theater. She returned to Atlanta for the start of her career and then headed to New York where she made her Broadway debut in 2013 as the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, in Soul Doctor. Her next Broadway role was in Shuffle Along, Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Her first national tour was playing Peggy Schuler/Maria Reynolds in the first touring company of Hamilton.
Surrounded by adoring friends and fans at 54 Below should be a comfortable place for Iman, but it is something that has brought her anxiety in the past. With some self-reflection and the help of her therapist, she decided, “I need to reframe how I think about myself. I need to get rid of all of the negativity and toxicity. I decided to choose joy. I stand before you in gratitude and joy. I am grateful to be here because I love what I do, so I chose songs that bring me happiness. On the stage in front of me, I have reminder post-its that say: LOVE, LISTEN, BREATHE, JOY, HAVE FUN.”
Between songs, Iman talked a lot about her upbringing, her love of creating music with others, and desire to include more joy in her life. Her back-up band The Shimmers opened with a fully-instrumental piece before the statuesque beauty appeared on stage to wild applause. The Shimmers include Musical Director and Pianist Michael O. Mitchell, drummer Andre Cleghorn, and bassist Jaylen Pettinaud.
In a nod to being back for live music, Iman had the crowd repeat after her: “I made it. You made it. We made it.” She began with “Party in the USA” to rev the audience up and had them clapping along. Proud of her heritage, she then launched into what she called her “Black-Ass Medley” and sang a combo of songs that included “On & On”, “Long Walk”, “FUBU”, “So Fresh, So Clean”. Her rendition of the Anita Baker classic “Sweet Love” was stunningly euphonious.
She admits that there are a lot of “almosts” in this industry, and since she never got to sing “Hold On” from The Secret Garden on stage as she imagined she would, she sang it here. She exudes joy on stage and dances along with the music. The patrons were happy to groove along in their seats, clap, and shout out affirmations to Iman. After “U Gotta Be”, and “Ready for Love”, Iman ended the evening with “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”.
Prior to singing “Ready for Love,” Iman confided, “I want to manifest love in all forms. I am now ready for love. I want to thank all of you here, and everyone who has supported me. I want to thank my therapist. It’s all about intention. Stand in joy. Let it wash over you.” It was an uplifting message and an uplifting evening of beautiful music by a woman with a beautiful soul.
photos by Melissa Griegel Photography