Our November guest is Broadway actress Brenda Braxton, who has built a career alongside the likes of Gregory Hines and Diana Ross. At 61, Braxton has spent more than four decades on stage and screen. She’s a 5-foot-4 firecracker who will either wear you out or rev you up. One thing’s for certain: She’s not about to let age hold her back — and she wants to inspire you to keep moving forward, too.
Brenda Braxton doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking “what if?” She doesn’t take the word “no” seriously. And though the last few years haven’t been the easiest for the Broadway actor/dancer/choreographer, she’s come out on the other side of divorce and the threat of foreclosure — and her 60th birthday — excited about life and ready for what’s next.
“I’m still getting back on my feet, but I’m determined I am going to launch Act 2 … Now What? and bring other women along with me,” she says.
Braxton, who is 61, is referring to a series of seminars she designed to empower women over 50 to figure out what they want to do — and then help them do it. It’s a business idea born out of her own struggles, yes, but also her drive to live a grand existence.
“When I started thinking about Act 2 … Now What?, I started thinking about the women who put their dreams on hold because they got married or they started a family. Why can’t they pick up on those dreams now?”
The plan she says, is to host women for a week of workshops that will give them the opportunity to identify their dreams deferred as well as the steps that will put them on a path to action and fulfillment in the second half of their lives. In fact, Braxton held the first Act 2 … Now What? seminar in 2015. The oldest attendee was a 93-year-old who still had plenty she wanted to accomplish.
I have made my mark in theater, and now I want to take my showgirl sensibility outside of the theater and empower other women to believe that they are fierce in this stage of their lives.
Two years after that first seminar, Braxton is the one with a dream on hold. Her need to pay her bills keeps her acting and dancing. When The Fine Line caught up with her, she was about to take the stage at New York City’s Edison Ballroom for a musical revue called And the World Goes ’Round, and she was waiting to hear if she’d be returning to After Midnight, a jazz-filled musical celebrating Duke Ellington’s years at the Cotton Club. She’s performed in the show on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship for the last couple of years.
A native New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx with a mother who assured her daughter that they were descendants of kings and queens, Braxton does indeed have regal appearance. She attended New York City’s famed High School of Performing Arts after choreographing her own three-minute routine and taking the bus to Manhattan to audition for a spot in the freshman class. “My mother had no idea I had auditioned until my acceptance letter came. That’s the kind of kid I was, which probably explains the sort of woman I turned out to be — the ‘just do it’ sort of gal!,” Braxton says.
A year out of high school and Braxton was doing her first Broadway show: the 1976 all African-American revival of Guys and Dolls starring Robert Guillaume.
From there she’d go on to work with Debbie Allen, Diana Ross, and Vinnette Carroll, the first black woman to direct a Broadway show (and get a Tony nomination for it).
“Finally,” she says with a laugh, “I did a little show called Dreamgirls.”
Braxton spent about six years on Dreamgirls, which was followed by Jelly’s Last Jam (with Gregory Hines) and Smokey Joe’s Café (for which she earned a 1995 Tony Award nomination). She also starred as Velma Kelly opposite BeBe Neuwirth, Rita Wilson, and Usher in the Broadway hit Chicago.
In 2006, Braxton decided to trade in her dancing shoes for a men’s grooming parlor. She and her then husband opened BBraxton, an upscale Harlem barbershop that was ahead of its time. The shop offered hot-lather shaves, mani/pedis, waxing, and more to gentlemen only. It closed in 2009, but Braxton reopened it in 2011. It closed again a few years later, around the same time her husband asked for a divorce, and Braxton says she found herself “standing at the stove in my brownstone — which I could no longer afford — counting out pieces of ravioli to make sure I would have enough to eat that week. At that point, I knew I needed to figure something else out.”
Braxton sold the brownstone before the bank could claim it and, with the support of family and friends, moved four times in four years, downsizing each time. “I would never have thought at age 58, I would have lost my home, marriage, business, not have a steady paycheck, and be returning to the dating scene.”
That was the pits, but a woman like Braxton doesn’t stay down long.
Though she still doesn’t have a home to call her own, she’s back on stage doing what she fell in love with at the age of 4, when her mother took her to her first dance class. She’s also plotting her own act 2.
“I have made my mark in theater,” she says, “and now I want to take my showgirl sensibility outside of the theater and empower other women to believe that they are fierce in this stage of their lives. Get your fishnets and your pumps and come on! We can do this!”
For more about Brenda Braxton, go to brendabraxton.com and keep reading The Fine Line.