Lillias White may pay the rent, but her rescue dog, LaKee, is unquestionably the host and star of the house, a crowded one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a building in Harlem.
LaKee (pronounced “Lucky”), a Chihuahua mix, is the first to respond to a knock on the door, far ahead of Mrs. White or the resident Bengal cat, Mr. Jaxson Ifya Nasty. And she is the first at the entrance to greet visitors. Effusively.
To be clear, Ms. White, 72, star of the Tony-winning musical “Hadestown,” is warm and welcoming. (Watch the show now; it leaves March 17.) But it's a daily battle not to be overshadowed by LaKee, even considering Ms. White's numerous Broadway credits (“Fela!”, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Once on This Island” and “Chicago “, among other); her awards, notably a Tony for her portrayal of a sly prostitute in the 1997 musical “The Life”; and her experiences as a solo artist (she will be teaching a cabaret master class at the 92nd Street Y in early March).
Mrs. White moved into the apartment more than 30 years ago, at a difficult time in her life. “My two children and I lived with my mother in Coney Island because she had lost my apartment in Brooklyn,” she said. “I got divorced and lost everything.”
Lilias White, 72 years old
Clean the covers: “I have a storage space a couple of blocks away. When the mess gets to me, my niece comes and helps me get rid of things.”
“We had been there for a few months,” he continued, “and I applied to move to different places and I applied for this building. I knew someone here who knew someone, so my name came up on the list and my friend said, 'They have an apartment for you.' You have to come up here to see it.'”
The messy kitchen had old cabinets and old roach droppings. Mrs. White wanted two bedrooms, but the only apartment available was a one-bedroom. Still, it was a good size and the rent was regulated. She also had a terrace, and even on a not-so-clear day it seemed like she could see forever.
“The view caught me. It was a good old-fashioned view of New York,” Ms. White said. “I felt like this was going to be a good space for my kids and me. I told people, 'I'll take it.' And a few weeks later, when I got the keys, I left my kids with my mom and came here and cleaned. And I cleaned. And I prayed.”
Along the way, there were periods when I wasn't working and unemployed – that's the life of an actor. “It has been a blessing to have this apartment,” he said, “because the rent was reasonable and I was able to survive and take care of my children.”
Furniture and basic household items were victims of the divorce. Mrs. White's mother provided some blankets and the local Goodwill store provided a round wooden dining table and four matching chairs, a bookshelf and a plexiglass-fronted cabinet. They're all still here.
Ms. White later purchased two brown leather couches at Costco. One left. And she recently discovered the charms of La-Z-Boy. “It's the most comfortable thing ever,” she said of her new off-white leather daybed.
He put down new floors in the kitchen and replaced the cabinets: “Ikea, but very functional.” He also bought a new stove. And a few years ago, she had a carpenter make cutouts of the African continent into pieces of wood that she uses as radiator covers.
Here and there are show posters, window cards and photographs of Mrs. White as she appeared in “Chicago,” “Fela!” and life”. But her passions extend far beyond the stage. She likes mermaids. Two, made of metal mosaics, hang from the walls. Another is on a shelf.
He also really likes elephants. When August Wilson's play “Joe Turner's Come and Gone” ended its run in Los Angeles, cast member Ms. White lobbied for a set piece: a stained-glass transom featuring a pachyderm.
It is on the living room window sill, next to an attenuated female figure that Mrs. White had seen and admired at the counter of Amy's Bread, a bakery in Hell's Kitchen. “I frequented them regularly because they sent unsold bread to nearby theaters and distributed it backstage,” she said. “He was kind and kind. I would walk into the store and the owner would always have this statue there.
“He didn't know who the artist was or what the figure represented,” she continued, “but to me it represented power and sustenance, because it is a woman with a halo of what I think are teeth. And she has wide hips and holds on to some hardware. I liked it a lot and when the owner died he left it to me as an inheritance.”
On a cloudy day in late January, a couple of roses hung tightly from the terrace. “They don't know if it's spring or what,” said Ms. White, a committed gardener.
She's also been busy cleaning the inside of the house, cleaning out a closet that she wants to repurpose as a recording studio for voice-over work. “I've been here for a while, hence the mess,” she said, looking around the living room.
An alley of sorts between the couches and bookshelves is filled with exercise equipment, fans, a vacuum cleaner, an air purifier, stacks of Wee-Wee pads for LaKee, a flat-screen TV, and an illustration that Mrs. White rescued from the trash: a police officer and a black boy enjoying sandwiches together. “It reminds me that we can love each other,” she said.
A one-man sauna, a gift from a friend, currently houses a stash of blankets. “I told my housekeeper, 'A journalist is coming. We have to put things away,'” Ms. White said.
He looked into a paper bag that was stuffed in a closet. “Champagne,” she said, surprise in her voice. “I had no idea this was here.”
Mrs. White is usually undeterred by the clash, and she is certainly undefeated.
“Lillias is winning because I feel comfortable, okay?” she said. “It is what it is. I stopped beating myself up about it a while ago. This is my comfort zone. This is my sanctuary.”
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