By Bridgette Redman

As a student at a performing arts high school, Dan’yelle Williamson was told she’d never make it as an artist. It was too hard to make a living that way. 

“I finally said screw all those people,” says Williamson, whose other choice was to run cross country. 

“I love a challenge and I’ve always loved a challenge. It just added fuel to my fire. My family wanted me to take whatever route would make me the happiest.”

So, she went to the prestigious Boston Conservatory and really started focusing on singing, dancing and theater. It was a career choice that served her well as she has performed in a long line of musicals. Now, she’s coming to ASU Gammage Tuesday, January 7, to Sunday, January 12, as part of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.”

She’ll play “Diva Donna,” one of three portrayals of Summer in the musical: “Duckling Donna,” the singer in her preteens as she starts out her career in Boston; “Disco Donna,” the singer in her late teens and 20s as she experiences her initial success; and “Diva Donna” who is in her 50s and at the top of her career. 

In the industry for 14 years, Williamson was turned on to Broadway when she was “Brooklyn” on the Great White Way. 

“There were so many other shows out there that were popular, but I wanted to see this nuanced, unconventional piece,” Williamson says. 

“I fell in love with New York. The energy was pulling me, and I knew that I had to be here, I have to figure out a way to be here.”

Many years later, she stepped onto Broadway’s stage as a performer in the original cast of “Memphis.”

“It was so thrilling and a very full-circle moment,” Williamson says. “To finally make it to Broadway, that is one of the achievements as an actor in your career. Everyone wants to go to Broadway. To have done it with such a special group of people, people who look like me, was really incredible and truly memorable. I will never forget it. I still have connections with those cast members and we’re still very close.”

While she knew of Summer’s music, Williamson says she didn’t know much about the disco queen’s life until she became a part of the show. Williamson worked with a New York City entertainment company that sourced artists for weddings and wedding receptions and guests would often request Summer’s songs like “Last Dance” or “Bad Girls.”

“It was exciting to learn about her and her as a mother, as a performer, a wife, a daughter and a sister,” Williamson says. 

“I was fascinated to learn she spent a significant amount of time in Europe. She struggled with separating her personal and performance lives. She had to balance a lot as a mother and to fight for her music. She was being taken advantage of as a woman and as a woman of color.”

Williamson says Summer also had interesting relationships, including an unpleasant experience with her church pastor when she was young, followed by unhealthy relationships with men prior to her marriage.

“She was a fighter and an incredible woman, artist, mother, wife and sister,” Williamson says. “She was so many things and she’s truly a legend. She (with others) really introduced a new sound and a new instrument that we still use today.”

Summer—then known as LaDonna Adrian Gaines—dropped out of high school just shy of graduating to head to New York and audition for musicals. She landed a role in “Hair” as Sheila in Munich, Germany, and her parents reluctantly gave her permission to go. 

She started her career there, became fluent in German and performed in many musicals. Williamson feels a lot of people don’t know Summer’s story because disco isn’t popular right now. 

“Disco was the cousin of music,” Williamson says. “If you’re not familiar with disco, I think it is important to highlight it. She was the only one that was doing it actively and successfully at that time. There were other people who tried, but she was the only woman doing it successfully and it is important to honor that legacy.”

Williamson portrays the Summer in her 50s, even though she is only 35. However, she says her life experiences have prepared her to capture that period of the diva’s life.

“I am a mature young lady,” Williamson says. “I’ve lived a lot of life in 35 years. I have had some hard times and I’ve gone through some of the challenges that she faced—not being recognized and wanting to be seen for roles I wouldn’t be seen for or considered for in this theater business. I think that I just have a natural maturity about me that comes across.”

Williamson enjoys not only Summer’s contributions to music and musical history, but the Summer’s personal story.

“I enjoy portraying the love she emits,” Williamson says. “She was a very loving, nurturing woman. Outside of her being this megastar and really coming into a legendary status, she was a mother and I really identify with that. I’m not a mother yet, but I have nurturing qualities. I love to tap into that every night and the love she used to share with so many.”

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, asugammage.com, various times Tuesday, January 7, to Sunday, January 12, tickets start at $30.

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