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Amber Iman Finally Gets to Play the Love Interest in 'Lempicka'

By: Regina Robbins
Date: Apr 04, 2024

The actor and activist talks about her breakout role in the new Broadway musical


When Amber Iman makes her entrance in Lempicka, the new Broadway musical about the provocative life and work of the underappreciated Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, she blows the show wide open. Iman plays Rafaela, a sex worker living a bold, defiant life in 1920s Paris, who soon becomes Lempicka's muse and lover. Standing six feet tall in heels and belting out "Don't Bet Your Heart," an anthem of self-sufficiency atop a white vintage automobile, she commands attention—much as the real-life Rafaela must have considering Lempicka painted her multiple times, including one of her most famous pieces, "La Bella Rafaela" (1927).

Born and raised in Atlanta, Iman earned a BFA in Musical Theatre from Howard University, then moved to New York to pursue a stage career. On Broadway, she's played music legend Nina Simone in Soul Doctor and a variety of parts in the 2016 revisal of Shuffle Along. But in Lempicka, the statuesque diva finally gets to be the love interest. "I feel good," says Iman over the phone during previews at the Longacre Theatre. "For me, it's been six years of working on Lempicka, and where we started is so much different than where we are now."

Written by Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould and directed by Hadestown Tony winner Rachel Chavkin, Lempicka has starred Eden Espinosa as the title character since its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2018. Carmen Cusack played Rafaela in that mounting, but when she couldn't continue with the musical's development, Gould asked Iman, a longtime collaborator and friend, to step in. She's been with the show ever since, including its well-received Broadway tryout at California's La Jolla Playhouse in 2022, and her feedback has been integral to her character's evolution.

"A writer is writing 12 characters for a show, but my job is just Rafaela," Iman says. "Because I'm inside of it, I'm seeing where the holes are. My job in the rehearsal room is to ask questions, to say, 'I need information, and I think the audience needs that information as well.'"

Iman's queries about Rafaela's motivations, particularly why she gets romantically involved with the married artist instead of taking the money for posing and running, inspired Lempicka's writers to pen the song "Stay," which shares a bit of the character's rough upbringing and why she longs for love and companionship.

While Rafaela's body was immortalized in Lempicka's canvases, her story has been lost to time. That's why her namesake character in the musical has been created whole cloth. "Tamara painted Rafaela seven times in one year. She had a huge impact on Tamara's life," Iman says. "She probably was a sex worker. That's all we know. For Carson Kreitzer, our brilliant book writer, to take that tidbit of information and create a three-dimensional character is what we love; it is the reason I'm here."

The historic Rafaela was white and European, but that's beside the point for the African American Iman. After all, Lempicka is not a documentary. "Crawling inside of Rafaela, being able to create out of thin air how she moves, how she walks, how she breathes… that's a challenge that I welcome," she says. "It's an honor to be the keeper of this person."

She appreciates the opportunity to play such a rich, sensual role since she knows from experience that some entertainment industry gatekeepers see her race before her talent and can't picture her in certain parts. She recalls her Shuffle Along costar, Billy Porter, telling her: "They aren't gonna know what to do with you, so you need to figure out a way to keep yourself busy, so you don't lose your mind while they figure it out."

Iman took Porter's advice to heart by helping to launch two organizations devoted to diversifying Broadway stages: Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which received a Special Tony Award in 2020, and Black Women on Broadway, which offers mentorship and fellowship opportunities for Black women in theatre.

"I want to be a part of making Broadway a better place for everyone who wants to work here," Iman says. "It's made great strides, but it has a long way to go. I know there are people who get disillusioned by it; I too have had my moments. But I'm glad to be able to show little Black girls with chocolate skin and long legs and kinky hair that if this is what you want, girl, come on. There's room."

TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Lepicka. Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.

Lempicka is also frequently available at our TKTS Booths.

Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.