Explore Washington D.C.

My Washington: Q&A with Nova Payton

The singer-actress tells us about her mentors and why she wears a butterfly ring.

Washington native and daughter of a gospel singer, Payton first walked onto a stage at age 3, playing a flower in a cabbage patch. Although she sang in church and in a girl group, soprano Payton thought of herself as a dancer. Ultimately the voice propelled her into musicals, then acclaim (and a PBS special) as one of “Three Mo’ Divas,” a trio as down with opera as R&B. Stunning moments at Signature Theatre earned a Helen Hayes nom (Motormouth Maybelle, "Hairspray") and supporting actress award (Effie, "Dreamgirls").

Nova Payton
Nova Payton (©Nikolas Vaughan)

Tell us about Smokey Joe’s Cafe, an homage to the songs of Leiber and Stoller at Arena Stage (through June 8).

It’s a trip down memory lane but with fresh sounds. Randy Johnson, who directed "A Night With Janis Joplin" here and in New York, assigns songs in new ways. He turned “Stand by Me” into a full-cast anthem and reclaimed Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” for me as a defiant rebuke of a man pleading “Treat Me Nice.”

Who else is in the cast?

Levi Kreis, who won a Tony for originating the role of Jerry Lee Lewis in "Million Dollar Quartet," and E. Faye Butler, the star of Arena’s "Pullman Porter Blues."

Who influenced you?

Leontyne Price and Whitney Houston taught me about placing the voice, and the Alvin Ailey dancers showed me grace and movement. But Roberta Flack gave support and friendship. [For years, Payton has been a back-up singer for Flack, once a D.C. school teacher.]

Arena Stage
Arena Stage (©Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Bing Thom Architects)

Where do you take your mom out for dinner?

We like Chart House on the Alexandria waterfront for crab cakes and shrimp. In downtown D.C., we go to Old Ebbitt Grill for oysters.

What keeps you in touch with community here?

I’m a music director at my church St. Martin of Tours. My children’s choir sings at Sunday noon gospel mass.

You like to wear a giant beaded butterfly ring?

Yes. I appreciate what it says about life: that something like a caterpillar can turn into a beautiful thing.

Do fans still associate you with dreamgirl Effie’s song “I’m Changing?”

Perhaps so. It used to fit me.

What lyrics fit you now?

“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, AND I’m feeling GOOD!”


Read about her perfect day in D.C.