Art, Activism & Academia: Spotlight on Eileen Kennedy
By Peggy Ratusz
She is a recovering overachiever. Like some addicts, she keeps falling off the wagon. A straight “A” student throughout her academic career, she is vivacious with a capital “V” and possesses an infectious zest for everything and everybody with a capital “Z.”
Miss Kennedy’s life has been a whirlwind of chance meetings as well as concentrated efforts. Endowed with an uncanny know-how spirit and a superlative knack for knowing when to say “yes” it has been a full and cyclical journey. Her art, activism and academia started with a song. That song began in tribute to and comes around again and again, to pay homage to her mother and maternal grandmother, the women who inspire her and continue to pave her way.
Picture this: a blonde, blue-eyed curly-topped six-year-old girl, living on a tree-lined Long Island, NY, neighborhood, frolicking by herself in the front yard belting out “Someday my prince will come.” Her prince indeed arrived and resides in her breath, brains and bravery. She brings him to life on canvas and from the musical and dramatic stage.
From Long Island; to Manhattan; to Boston; Havana, Cuba; Provincetown and now Asheville, Eileen is a woman on fire. When the smoke clears we find four prestigious degrees: Political Science, Media and Art History, and two in Sociology. As well as a myriad of non-profit, paid and unpaid positions she’s held that range from painter, art critic, lawyer’s assistant, dramatic and musical actress and cabaret/lounge singer.
I joined Eileen one morning recently at a Fairview eatery near her home, where she describes landing her last three musical stage gigs as a “performer’s dream.” She explains the first of the trifecta. She captured dual roles, mind you, in the Vermont Family Theater’s 2011 production of Jekyll and Hyde, playing Barrister Proops in the first act and House Governess Poole in the second. It happened in Provincetown, MA on one of those proverbial right-place-at-the-right-time moments. Never the shy one, Eileen approached the band that had been hired to perform for an art center event she attended. Would they allow her to sit in and would they accompany her on a few tunes? Because it’s hard to say “no” to this sexy, affable, amusing minx, they at once obliged.
Also in attendance that evening happened to be a poet, who happened to have a dear friend, who happened to be directing a production of Jekyll and Hyde that happened to already be in rehearsal stage that happened to be in nearby Irasburg, VT. Due to the poet’s reputation for eying talent and his insistence that she be cast, she happened to be cast immediately.
Moreover, in the audience one night at a performance during that run of J & H, happened to be Lynn Leimer, the Artistic Director for QNEK Theater Company (Quebec and the Northeast Kingdom). She was also so taken with Kennedy, that without hesitation, she happened to ask Eileen to accept a lead role in her next production. The show was ONEK’s summer 2012 production of Ruthless! The Musical, and Eileen was cast to play Sylvia St. Croix, a role traditionally played by a drag queen or male. It was held at the historic Haskell Opera House in Stanstead Quebec, Province.
“Oh my, that was fun! Talk about a challenge! To date it is by far the biggest I’ve had on the musical stage!” she proclaims of the role. Without a doubt, challenges are what Eileen eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She chews every morsel; savors every bite. Even at our brunch interview, she literally used her fingers to wipe up the leftover shrimp and grits sauce left at the bottom of her bowl!
This is an intuitive, natural born entertainer and powerful theater actress who a critic describes as one “who knows how to take possession of a song and an audience with her idiosyncratic voice.” This review is especially emotional for Kennedy to remember, because her calling has been steeped in connections. The heart to heart and the soul to soul that can happen between audience and artist brings tears to her eyes when she speaks of it. She cites Judy Garland as her biggest musical and performance artist influence in this regard.
I will toot her horn even further by telling you a few random things like: she has a four-octave vocal range, she’s spontaneous, hilarious, sensitive and warm, she’s also fluent in Spanish and conversational French and she’s an acclaimed figurative and impressionist painter. Her works have been shown in New York, Boston, Provincetown and Havana, and are displayed in private collections throughout the country.
She once hitched and hiked 1,000 miles from the end of Pelham Bay in the Bronx, to Newfoundland. The best part of the trip she says was “sleeping on deck of the ferry across the Bay of Fundy, watching the sun separate the sky from the sea at sunrise.”
Collaborating with local pianist and composer, Richard Schulman, the two are engaged in the re-visioning of his musical stage production, Dream of Camelot. Earlier this year, Eileen played lead character, Glenda, and shows were held in Asheville and other locales to wonderful reviews. But until the next inception of Camelot comes out, you’ll find her as one of four leads in the Hendersonville Little Theatre’s production of GI Holiday Jukebox USO Show. Eager to mention her fellow cast mates, the restaurant patrons, severs and cooks at the diner in Fairview are as startled as am I when she bellows out their names with pride and abandon: Andre Ellerby! Carol Duermit! and Richard Blue!!! The premise of this presentation is four actor/singers clad in uniforms and evening clothes, putting on a 1940’s musical and comedic radio show for the holidays. They’ll perform a mix of Christmas
and popular World War II tunes.
The show was written and arranged by Rick Lewis and is produced by special arrangement with Select Entertainment Productions, LLC. Eileen is particularly excited about the Honor Air show scheduled for Sunday December 9th with invited World War II veterans as the theater’s guests. This show is sure to sell out and runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. December 7th through the 16th. For more information and tickets, call (828) 692-1082 or check out their website at hendersonvilletheatre.org. Hendersonville Little Theatre is located at 229 South Washington Street, Hendersonville, NC 28739.
In closing, it is wonderful and fitting to mention that meeting and becoming friends with the incomparable Eileen Kennedy happened because of WNC Woman Magazine. One of my 2010 Women Making Music features caught the eye of a dear friend of Eileen’s who dropped my name as a potential vocal coach. So it’s with great pride and love that I thank Sandi for allowing me this opportunity to write about two things I adore: women and music. Unexpected gifts are my favorite kind.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukkah. Peace, love and spiritual and financial prosperity to all and to all a Happy New Year!