Before Jennifer Hudson stole hearts as Effie White in the 2006 film “Dreamgirls” (for which she won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress), a Broadway musical of the same name opened in 1981.
The Tony Award-winning musical, set in the ’60s and ’70s, follows The Dreamettes, a hopeful all-girl singing group from Chicago, as they enter a talent competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The three songstresses are reportedly based on real-life performers Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson of The Supremes.
The plot thickens when The Dreamettes lose the talent contest, but they are quickly approached backstage by Curtis Taylor Jr., a used-car salesman who becomes the girls’ manager. The next two decades are filled with backstabbing, catfights and the triumphs and tribulations that come with fame and fortune. There’s plenty of music, too.
Later this month, a new production of “Dreamgirls” makes its way to Jacksonville for a one-night performance at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts’ Moran Theater. Hometown girl Renée Veronica Freeman is along for the ride.
Freeman, a 25-year-old Jacksonville University graduate and Players by the Sea alumna, performs in the musical ensemble as a featured Stepp Sister and is the understudy for lead character Deena Jones, who she called “a fabulous woman and a diva who was manipulated to take on a role that she may not have been ready for.”
Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Freeman and her family fled West Africa in 1990 and emigrated to Long Island, where she spent most of her youth until moving to Atlanta as a teenager. While in high school, Freeman, a budding singer, actor and dancer, received a flier in the mail for JU.
“I looked into it and liked Florida. I was offered a scholarship for the music theater program, auditioned, got in, and started school in the fall of 2005,” Freeman said.
During her time in Jacksonville, the aspiring actor took every opportunity to improve her craft, including performing in six college musicals and a host of community productions.
“The community is where I found my confidence,” Freeman said. “The people in Jacksonville believed in me and gave me the audacity to dream.”
While at JU, Freeman played the lead role of Sadie Pettway in Players by the Sea’s rendition of “Gee’s Bend” and Ronny in the theater’s production of “Hair.” Freeman also portrayed Taylor McKessie in the Alhambra Theatre & Dining’s “High School Musical.”
“The first week after graduating from JU with a BFA in music theater, I started a two-and-a-half month run as Taylor in ‘High School Musical,’ ” Freeman said. “This role helped me build my confidence, get my bearings and really find out who I am.”
When the play was over, Freeman did what many aspiring performers do: She moved to the New York and New Jersey area to live on her brother’s pullout couch for six months and see if she could make it in the big city. It worked. Freeman’s been a professional singer, actor and dancer for the past three years.
“It’s been kind of a string of events,” she said. “It’s been about seizing an opportunity and really going for it.”
Freeman has toured with the United Service Organization (USO) as a Liberty Bell — bringing cheer and uplifting spirits to servicemen and women around the country. She considers this “one of the most rewarding performance jobs I’ve ever done” and despite her new role in “Dreamgirls,” she remains a part-time performer with the organization.
As a featured ensemble performer and understudy for the lead character in “Dreamgirls,” Freeman looks back at her time in Jacksonville fondly.
“For me, theater has always been an escape,” she said. “I’m excited for the people in the community who helped mold me as an actor — college professors and friends — to see me perform.”