Raising his voice for the community
From the spotlight of stages across Kentucky and beyond to speaking up for fellow students, and now artists, University of Kentucky alumnus Whit Whitaker has used his vocal talents to better his community.
Story and video courtesy of UKNow, by Whitney Hale and Jenny Wells-Hosley
Not long after arriving at the university, Whitaker turned to his voice to not only communicate his dreams as a performer but to fight for social justice as a student leader. Today, he still uses these skills, as a vocalist and actor but also as the executive director of The Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.
Whitaker, who earned his bachelor's degree from UK in vocal performance in 1995 and a master's degree in arts administration in 2015, recently sat down with UKNow to talk about his journey to Kentucky and his new leadership position in the state's arts community. He even offered readers some sneak peeks to what's ahead this season at The Lyric.
UKNow: Where were you born?
Whit Whitaker: I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up in Detroit, Michigan.
UKNow: And when did you start to become interested in the arts?
Whitaker: I started playing violin when I was 8 years old, there was a program that came to the inner-city schools that allowed the kids to experience the instruments. While most people picked drums and guitar, things like that, I was the only one who picked the violin.
UKNow: And how long did you play the violin? Do you still play?
Whitaker: I still dabble. I’ve played for my church, I’ve played in several orchestras, and I’ve played for a band once. So right now, I kind of just play on my own and try to just rehab my skills.
UKNow: As time went on, you picked up singing and acting. Can you tell us how you got into those?
Whitaker: Right, so I started singing my sophomore year in high school at Southeastern High School in Detroit, Michigan, when I joined the male glee club, and I was really fascinated with men’s singing, all male singing. So that’s when I really started singing, glee club and mixed choir. Then my senior year I participated in a vocal competition for classical music, ARIAS, and I placed pretty high. I think I won it.
And so, I ended up going to Kentucky State University my freshman year to major in music. Originally it was engineering, but I changed to music because music was the thing that moved me. When I was in, I think elementary school playing violin, the teacher once said to me "that music is the universal language, and wouldn’t it be nice if music would end wars," and that just kind of stuck with me. Like, oh, I can change the world with music.
A little naïve, but still I thought it in the back of my heart and mind.
UKNow: What brought you over to UK from Kentucky State?
Whitaker: There were 21 of us who came over and auditioned. The program we thought we were under was totally different. So, we ended up coming to UK to audition, and three of us made it and got scholarships. And so, I thought, well it was destined, I guess, because originally before going to Kentucky State, I went down to Morehouse College to audition for a violin and voice scholarship.
I got them both, but they wanted me to start in the spring semester, and I ended up auditioning at Kentucky State and got a voice scholarship on the spot.
I turned it down and went back to Detroit, I was kind of running with a bad crowd. I was number two in my high school class, played violin and my senior year I was taking five music classes, orchestra, gym and taking college calculus on the weekends. But I was kind of hanging out with a rough crowd, you know, a few gang members. So, I thought, African American men seeing the age of 21 was 1 of 5 at the time, and I thought I need to get out of here. I ended up going to Kentucky State, then auditioning at UK in the spring and then coming to UK in the fall.
UKNow: And at UK, who did you study with?
Whitaker: Initially, I studied with Dr. Phyllis Jenness, at the time I was singing baritone. My freshman year at Kentucky State University, I studied with Charles Lloyd Jr., who was a noted African American opera spirituals composer. So, I started with Phyllis, then I was on the committee as a student to vet a new voice professor, and Dr. (Everett) McCorvey was the one we picked, so I ended up studying with him and started singing tenor with him.
UKNow: What was it like to study under Everett McCorvey at the beginning of a renaissance of UK's opera program?
Whitaker: It was great. Before that, I hadn’t had any (professor), aside from Charles Lloyd Jr. who’s African American, no African American professors (at UK). I was one of a few in the program actually. It felt like you are out of left field. So, when Dr. McCorvey came and I got to study with him, it was a great experience. To have an African American male, who number one was male and number two was African American and who could feel my pain, knew my voice. And that’s not to say Phyllis Jenness wasn’t great, because she brought me a long way.
When Dr. McCorvey came he listened to my voice and he started thinking “You can sing higher, I think you’re not a baritone, I think you’re a tenor.” I started singing tenor. Of course, along with him, I ended up being one of the original members of the American Spiritual Ensemble touring Spain and all of the U.S. With Dr. McCorvey came a lot of new and enlightening experiences as a musician.
UKNow: Is there any particular memory from undergrad or even grad school that is kind of one of your cherished moments?
Whitaker: I would say one of the most cherished moments was the year I was nominated, well I was voted the Fine Arts senator (for UK's Student Government Association) and at the same time I ended up being Black Student Union president and a representative for the Student Organization Assembly for their committee on bringing cultural programming.
So that was a big, big thing for me. I was kind of a militant undergraduate fighting for just causes and things like that. So that was, as far as college life, that and when I became a member of my fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, and probably when I got commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1987. Those were really wonderful experiences.
Music experience — probably when I got my first lead role in opera. I think I played Beto in "Gianni Schicchi." I also ended up playing Mr. Kofner in "The Consul" by Mr. Gian Carlo Menotti, as well as my favorite (opera) role — when I got to play the character role of Bardolfo in "Falstaff," where I got to wear a prosthetic nose and sing in a character voice.
UKNow: What made you interested in the student organizations you got involved in?
Whitaker: I became interested because I believe in fighting for a cause, I guess. One of the things — there were several things that happened during that period in school, a couple were the use of the racial epithet by former Gov. Happy Chandler, twice. There were also experiences that I had when I first came to school, in the dorm, racial things, so I just felt that there were so few of us, and so I wanted to be a fighter and a voice for those who were marginalized.
So yeah, that’s really why I got involved.
As far as the music organizations, it was just a love for music and those organizations. When I did operas or the recitals, I was the only for a while, or one of the few African Americans, you know they made me feel at home. People like Dr. Sara Holroyd, who was the choir director there, and Bill Ramsey. Those music things fed me and gave me food, but the student organizations taught me to fight for a cause, causes that you believe in and to understand that the world is bigger than yourself.
I say that because I’m introverted by nature. I was mostly one who would pull back and not be involved and being in the arts teaches you that you can’t be introverted on stage, you have to put yourself out there. Same thing with the organizations, you can’t just stand back and let things happen. You have to get out and fight and let your voice be heard.
UKNow: You were a second lieutenant and part of UK's Army ROTC program. What made you want to serve?
Whitaker: I don’t know — honor. I just wanted to do something for this country, even though I was a conscientious objector. And I did almost get called up to the first Gulf War, so I’m blessed that I didn’t have to. But you know, there’s just honor in serving. Whether it's volunteering, doing things for your mom, I just think there’s honor in serving.
UKNow: Years later, while working with UK HealthCare, you decided to pursue a master’s in arts administration. Tell us a little bit about that choice.
Whitaker: Well, I have experienced the stage from the audience, and I’ve experienced the stage from the stage, as a performer. And so, I wanted to delve more into what it takes to create this illusion and perform it.
I had been doing solo performances and solo concerts and things like that myself, so I was actually out there promoting myself and creating my own digital flyers and reaching out to people, setting up my own contracts. This was just like a stepping stone toward that, to know more about the business, about entertainment law, about contract law, trying to understand more what goes on behind (the scenes) to a larger scale, talking to different venue operators, authoring a contract for a group or performer coming in, knowing about the aspects of marketing and things like that.
UKNow: Was there a particular faculty member who you worked with there that you are fond of?
Whitaker: Geri Maschio was my advisor. Coincidentally, she was my biggest supporter in getting into grad school. I was very smart, obviously I was number two of my high school class but, with the racism here, being a fish out of water because you know in my high school, my senior year, we had maybe five white people. So, it was totally different coming here.
For my undergraduate degree, my grades weren’t bad but they weren't stellar, a lot of that was because I was rebellious about going to class. I felt like if you knew material, why do you have to follow an attendance policy? I should be able to just come take the test; you know. But that’s not how it works so, Geri was a big fan of mine and fighting for me to get into grad school.
Apparently, I didn’t need much fight, but it was good that she stuck up for me. She was the one that I remember the most. Of course, Dr. (Rachel) Shane, has been a big supporter.
UKNow: While working with UK HealthCare, you continued performing. Today, you still find time to perform while running The Lyric. Do you plan to be a performer all your life?
Whitaker: I’ll be a performer for as long as I can handle it. As long as I can be true to the art, as long as I can tell the story with honesty.
You know, obviously, with singing if you lose your voice at some point you have to make the decision. With acting it can go a little longer, but with me being an introvert by nature if I wasn’t here running The Lyric, teaching bootcamp and water fitness classes at the YMCA, doing gigs with my band, The Mercy Men, or performing on stage, I would probably just be at home, and doing church on Sundays, of course. I kind of have a people-phobia. I’ve learned to get better, but the performing allows you to be someone else, something else.
UKNow: Are there particular types of projects you like to work on?
Whitaker: I would like to do more directing projects eventually. But, right now, I’m just taking it as it comes. I would love to play the role of Jesus at some point in "Jesus Christ Superstar." I’ve never gotten to do that. I understudied it. I played Othello, which was a goal and a wish a couple summers ago.
I’ve played Sporting Life in the opera "Porgy and Bess," played Don Quixote, so I’ve had some really good roles. I would have loved to have played Troy Maxson in "Fences," but I’m playing his counter, Bono. In college, we did "Fences" with Message Theatre, which I am a part of. In college I played Cory, the son. Everything just comes back around.
UKNow: So, in just the last year you were named the executive director of The Lyric. What made you interested in taking on such a beautiful venue, a historic venue, an important venue to Lexington?
Whitaker: Yes, all of those — beautiful, historic, important to the community, especially the East End. I was in South Africa singing when I had gotten the call. Before I had gone to South Africa, I had made the decision to interview, to apply, but I did it the last day before the deadline because it is a big job.
You know, I want to, but it is important that I am a correct fit for The Lyric as well as The Lyric being a fit for me, that’s with anything I do. So, I went to church and prayed because I was really anxious about it. So, I said to myself "if at the end of the sermon I feel like a weight is lifted, I feel lofty in the loafers, I’ll apply," and I had forgotten about it when church was over. I said “oh, doesn’t hurt to apply.” Didn’t think I was going to get it.
But, it was — it is — an honor for the board to bring me on board and have the faith that they have in me, and the faith the community has extended to me. I've walked through the East End handing out flyers, talking to people on their porches, trying to get back to this whole grassroots thing, because when I took over, there were some hurt feelings — there were some indifferences with The Lyric. My goal is to bridge those gaps and to bring The Lyric back to prominence, whatever that means, and to bring it back in line and in touch with the community.
UKNow: What do you want to see for The Lyric in the maybe the next five to 10 years?
Whitaker: Well, if I am around in the next five or 10 years, either alive or if the board decides to keep me on board, I would like to see more cultural programming growing here.
I brought "Selma The Musical" here this past weekend, and there has not been anything here like that. It has gotten rave reviews. I want to do more theatre. Since I have been here, I have brought on several theatre projects, I am reaching out to different promoters and groups about coming here, renting the venue to do their production or working on a partnership to where we can help bring in a particular show or performance here.
Ultimately, I would like The Lyric’s name to be on the lips of people out of the country, so if you’re in England and someone mentions The Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, you’re like "oh, in Lexington, Kentucky." I want The Lyric to be a household name not only in Lexington, but throughout Central Kentucky, the country and the world.
UKNow: Tell us about the other types of arts programming you do and using the venue as a community space.
Whitaker: So, we have two art galleries, a museum gallery with permanent pieces that can be rotated in or out. And, we have our main art gallery, which we program community artists.
We have the community room, which is used for weddings, receptions, and other events. We had our NAACP Freedom Banquet here. So, every space in here can be rented.
Before I came, The Lyric was mostly a rental space. So, people rent the space, as long as they’re paying for the venue, they can keep tickets. So, with a couple projects I’ve brought on, I’ve actually purchased those performances, "Selma" and things like that. So, it's a little more risky. I am very careful with the projects I do, but it's a little more risky. But every space here can be rented.
We have cultural programming, like our community backpack program that we do with William Wells Brown (elementary school), we do some partnerships with other neighborhood associations, we have a partnership with Black Soil that comes here, Camp Lyric during the summer, so there are several cultural things here, several visual arts programs that happen — Kwanza programming, our Black History Month Convocation — there is quite a bit to offer.
When I bring things here my goal is to hopefully have it to be an experience and not just a show that came here. I want it to be an experience and try to build something around it. Hopefully it’s a program that people can learn from or get something from to feed their souls.
UKNow: Do you feel your arts administration degree and your experience as a performer coming out of UK helped any with some of the challenges you face leading The Lyric?
Whitaker: I do. Before I was here, I was a choral business director for The Lexington Singers, and I also worked with the Kentucky Bach Choir (as an intern),.but, when I was the choral business director, everything that happens here (at The Lyric) I had to do myself — so, I had to do grants, I had to create digital programming, I had to learn Photoshop (which I learned in grad school), I had to write contracts.
Here, I have an operations manager who mainly deals with the rental aspects of the theatre, and I have a social media marketing person who does marketing on social media platforms. And, I am in charge of all aspects of this place — the building, trying to get funding and everything in between. Even now I am working on redoing the volunteer manual, so it's creating new digital hands-on stuff, which I technically don’t have to do because I have a person who does that, but I also don’t like to overwhelm people and I believe in getting in and rolling up my sleeves too.
When I first started here, for some events, I was cleaning tables and taking out trash in my suit and people were telling me no director before you has done that, but that’s how I was raised. You just get in there. You're no better than anybody else. I think my life experiences, growing up poor, being homeless a few times, my love for music to bring me out of the introverted state a little bit more, my degrees and performing, and Arts Administration, I think they’re all ingredients that go into the pot and hopefully creates the person that I am today and hopefully a person that everyone can believe in, have faith in, and follow. Regardless of all the knowledge, regardless of whether you think I’m a great performer or not, to me the ultimate measure of a leader is how you can influence people. You know Dr. King, he influenced people to stand and take water hoses, dogs sicced on you, being beaten by the police. Jesus, Mother Teresa — they were also introverts.
Hopefully, I can continue to create a buy in and influence people to believe in what I am trying to do and that, ultimately, in the future when I look back, maybe people will say he was a great leader for The Lyric.
UKNow: What’s up next for The Lyric?
Whitaker: Up next we have our Black History Convocation with Kentucky State University’s athletic director, Terrance Slater, who is really great with young people, he is a basketball coach. The convocation is mainly for younger people, adults can come also but it's about energizing those elementary, middle school, and high schoolers and teaching them about what Black History Month means and how you can contribute positively to society. Devine Carama is going to be performing for that.
In March, we have Vagabond Stage Productions doing a show, “Love, Loss and What I Wore”; we have our Women’s International Festival here, in its second year; we have a program called “Ain’t I a Woman” coming here that features a core ensemble with a young lady playing four strong female characters — including Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer — its kind of a musical biopic.
It’s not published yet, but I can say it, will we being having BB King’s daughter, Claudette King. She will be here in October for out 10th anniversary Lyric Gala. We are planning that now, but I have reached out to her and we’ve already set things and she is committed to that.
We have Walter Mosley coming here in April, an African American author, poet, playwright. If you’re familiar with “Devil in the Blue Dress,” starring Denzel Washington, he was on that project.
So, we have a few things coming up. And I’m working on a few things to try to get here. I’m trying to get "The Fannie Lou Hamer Story" here, which has been a national touring musical. I would like to get that here around voting day to kind of enhance that experience and try to get more people to vote. I’m working with Community Ventures and The Met project in the East End, and we’re getting ready to move forward to try to capture more stories of the people from the East End. Hopefully we’re going to be bringing scanners here to The Lyric as a central location and allowing the residents to come and scan their photos. And, we’ll give them drives for that because there are a lot of great photos that older members of the community have but won’t let you take them because they are very precious. We want to scan those and also give them additional copies and protect them. So, we’ve got a few things coming up, hopefully more down the line.
UKNow: One last thing, what would you tell students, who want to follow in your footsteps as either as a performer or working in the arts?
Whitaker: I would tell them develop thick skin, first of all, because you will not get every role that you want. I would tell them, too, that effort beats out talent any day. That’s what I teach when I teach my fitness classes, you don’t have to be as strong or as fast as I am, but everyone should give 100% effort, and effort goes a long way.
And, I would also tell them to make sure that they have a plan. It took me a long time to get here, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter when you get there as long as you arrive. Just have a plan and some knowledge to support your endeavors and what you want to do.
Additionally, you can see Whitaker doing his thing as a performer at a few events this month. Currently, he is performing in "Fences" through Feb. 23 with the equity theatre, AthensWest, run by Bo list. Then on Feb. 28, Whitaker will be in Campbellsville, Kentucky, doing a solo concert to commemorate Black History Month. The concert will consist of visuals and audio clips providing audiences a musical journey of enslavement to redemption. The next night, on Feb. 29, he will be directing "The Mountaintop” and portraying Martin Luther King Jr. in the production.