THE KING & I: James in costume as the Biblical heroine, opposite Johnson, who calls her "a professional."
YOUNG outstanding talents like Kristen James seem pre-destined to find remarkable success in the performing arts. While two of her aunts are former members of Father HoLung & Friends, her mother and another aunt formed part of the now defunct singing group The Emmanuel Sisters. While getting her education at one of the best institutions in the land, Immaculate Conception High, James joined the school choir and the rest, as they say, is history.
Choral singing alongside intense academic pursuits became her life. It comes as no surprise that her awesome vocal abilities, not just her rich musical pedigree, helped secure her a spot in the Father HoLung & Friends family, where she’s been for the past three-and-a-half-years, growing as an artist and getting lots of coaching. She’s already worked her way up to principal cast member.
In 2015, James won the role of Bathsheba in King David. Last year, she held her own as Neferti in Moses. This year, she was a shoo-in to take on the coveted title role in Queen Esther – and she got the part. “It makes me nervous, very anxious, but honoured that it was offered to me. I had to make every effort to live up to it and put myself in her shoes and try to embody the role. I really had to put myself in the frame of mind to carry a show,” shares the 22-year-old performer, whose intense preparation saw her spending countless hours holed up in her room memorizing lines and “singing anywhere I could sing” to learn the lyrics and melodies for the big show-stopping numbers.
Playing a Biblical heroine in one of the most buzzed-about shows of the year, James is quick to add, was a much welcome learning experience. “I had to really understand who Esther is. Her whole purpose is service to her God. She’s fearful but she stands up for her people. She didn’t know if she would survive, but she decided that this is what God called her to do so she had to pick herself up and do God’s will,” James explains. “And I think I did justice to that.”
Her leading man Stephen-Rhae Johnson (playing King Xerxes, who falls for Esther’s charms) is a fan. “Kristen is a professional, and I love that. I take the stagecraft very seriously, and I like to work with people who do. She takes it seriously,” he tells TALLAWAH. “Her voice is strong and melodic. She put lots of work into the role. She’s an excellent actress, plus she’s a nice person.”
We hastily concur. Not only does James bring conviction and emotional precision to the complex part, she uses her multi-octave range to stunning effect. Where does this confidence come from? “My confidence I definitely built up while going through high school. I excelled in a lot of leadership roles. I think I’ve always been a natural leader, but I honed those talents while at Immaculate,” says James, who went on to enroll at UWI Mona to read for a first degree in Actuarial Science before switching to Economics and Statistics. She’s currently in her final year on a part-time basis. “I did a lot of experimenting at UWI,” she admits, with a laugh, “but I did find my knack, which was Statistics.”
This charming girl, clad in a lovely leopard print dress, smiles and laughs a lot as we chat inside the National Arena ahead of a scheduled 2pm performance. She sees a career as a financial analyst in her future. “My passion is numbers. I love math, so that would be the career for me,” says the devout Catholic, who looks up to Hollywood leading ladies like Kerry Washington, Angela Bassett and Viola Davis.
A city girl through and through, she lights up when talking about her big, arts-loving family (grand-dad was a calypsonian) that’s “always been very supportive.” They encouraged her love of the performing arts, which led to stints with Wolmer’s Dance Troupe (Artistic Director Barbara McDaniel is a family friend) and Praise Academy of Dance and a six-year sojourn with the Tony Wilson-led Company Dance Theatre.
Father HoLung & Friends is home now. “I love being on stage – singing, dancing, embodying the character. After I finish UWI I want to go to Canada to do my Master’s in Econ, but I really don’t want to leave the group,” says James, who favours honey and lime for voice care, does regular exercise and takes her one-a-day vitamins. “It’s the biggest platform I have to evangelize and minister. So I’ll stay connected to them, even if I go abroad.”
> Playing Favourites: Kristen shares her pop-culture picks
Musicians: Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran
Food: Pasta and Mac & Cheese
Movies: The Conjuring and the Harry Potter series
Books: The Twilight series and The Fault in Our Stars