Nkeki Obi-Melekwe is soaring high as the star of Broadway's "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical."
Yet when Covid-19 pandemic shut down Broadway in March 2020, she was suddenly one of millions of unemployed workers. At the time, she was an alternate for the role of Tina Turner.
Obi-Melekwe left New York City and spent time with her family in North Carolina.
"For me, as an artist, telling stories and speaking to an audience through performance is such a large part of who I am that for a long time, I felt like a part of myself just wasn't intact," she said.
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Fortunately for her, though, the 25-year-old knew that the show would come back to Broadway.
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"I knew that when we returned, her story of resilience would be needed more than ever," she said. "Tina is 'the queen of the comeback' and now, coming out of the pandemic, I think we're all working on our own personal comebacks, whatever that may be."
Obi-Melekwe's comeback happened in the summer of 2021 when Broadway reopened, and last November, she took over the starring role in her show.
And now that she's back in the spotlight, she's using her voice to help lift up women so that they, too, can achieve their goals.
"It's important for all of us to … support each other during this time," said Obi-Melekwe, who performed in Girls With Impact's International Women's Day Benefit Concert on Tuesday. The proceeds will enable the nonprofit to train under-resourced young women in its business and leadership academy.
Obi-Melekwe's involvement with the entrepreneurship program comes as the group has widened its focus to include young adults up to age 24. Prior to the pandemic, the program helped girls in grades 7 through 12.
Young adults in Girls With Impact's mini-MBA program learn hard skills like technology and finance and soft skills such as leadership, collaboration, agility and public speaking. They are then paired with a mentor for coaching.
"[Mentors] will help guide that individual to land in a pathway, to land in college, to land in their first job or to land in their own business," said Jennifer Openshaw, the group's founder and CEO.
To be sure, women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Whether they were laid off or had to leave to care for children home from school, many struggled to make ends meet. In February 2022, nearly two years into the pandemic, more than 1 million fewer women were in the labor force than in February 2020, according to the National Women's Law Center.
In response, advocates have called for policymakers and employers to focus on paid sick leave, paid sick days, support for pregnant workers and making child care more available and affordable.
In Girls with Impact's report focusing on the recovery of women in Connecticut, local government and business leaders advocated for responses such as structured training programs, re-skilling and more access to capital for women business owners.
"People need different pathways," Openshaw said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all."
Obi-Melekwe understands the importance of support and mentorship at every age. She said she was frustrated with trying to fit in after moving to the Bronx in New York City from Charlotte, N.C., with her family when she was 9 years old.
"It wasn't until a teacher in middle school inspired me to pursue performing that I realized the power of my own performance ability and my own voice," said Obi-Melekwe.
That power landed her the role of Tina Turner in the London production of the show just three months after she graduated from the University of Michigan in 2018. She came to Broadway as the alternate in 2019.
During Broadway's long shutdown, Obi-Melekwe began pursuing voiceover work and has since become the voice of carmaker Audi. She also took up pottery as part of a necessary reset.
"I was able to spend time with my folks, spend time in the sunshine, and have space and nature, all things I'd taken for granted until I realized how much I needed these things and how much they helped me cope and make my life feel full when so much else remained uncertain," Obi-Melekwe said.
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