Helena-Joyce Wright has made a name for herself as a Broadway singer, actress and writer. With a new chapter about to unfold, she's taking time to reflect.
“It's been the ugliest process, but the most rewarding,” said Wright. The multi-talented artist started her career working with greats Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis in “Zora! Is My Name” and then making her Broadway debut in the musical “Amen Corner” in 1983. Wright was deemed as “Broadway's legit belter,” tackling big songs and hitting the notes on lower registers. Then in 2001, she was confronted with a challenge that would change the way her voice sounded forever: Wright was struck by cancer.
Although she rode out that storm following chemotherapy treatment and radiation, the illness drained her physically, and three abdominal surgeries changed the way she sang. But in 2011 vocologist Daniel McCabe and Dr. Kenneth Altman, an otolaryngologist, at the Eugen Grabscheid MD Voice Center at Mt. Sinai Hospital still saw that something amazing could develop from Wright's changed voice.
“Wouldn't you like to see just how good it could be?” Wright recalls McCabe asking her when he heard her range.
Wright accepted his challenge, starting this new journey with an open mind, but with nonetheless realistic expectations. “I was just hoping that I had a voice enough to hold my own,” she said. “I did not really expect for it to be better than it was before.”
Wright had worked at Mount Sinai with the late Dr. Eugen Grabscheid when she experienced difficulties with her voice previously, but her illness left her raw, exposed and vulnerable.
“It's hard when you are already identified with something and to let all that go and then to listen to somebody else and consider them an expert,” she said.
McCabe and Wright worked to reconstruct her voice through exercises and vocal training. These sessions taught Wright what vocal tissues she could use in order to make the best of her voice. Their work even continued outside the office, when McCabe joined Wright during her rehearsal sessions.
“Something as little in the background noise could be responsible for the strain in the voice,” he said. McCabe explained how teachers, for example, can sometimes tend to strain when contending with extraneous sounds. Aside from singers, McCabe has worked with broadcasters, World Trade Center first responders and everyday people who either gone through cancer or experienced problems with their vocal cords.
Wright is busy rehearsing a revival of the musical “Amen Corner.” With help from McCabe, she said she keeps learning about her voice, including how it differs from when it sounded 32 years ago.
“He heard what I did not hear and a lot of people were shocked now when they wrap their brains around me sounding this way,” she said.
McCabe even attested to the way others heard Wright's voice.
“Ms. Wright's voice is better than before and also her voice beats out some recording artists,” he said.
The two have a trust. His honest feedback is a trait the singer values the most, Wright said.
“He's not someone that would lead you down some primrose path to your face, and say 'I don't think this is the right path for you' and that's part of what makes trust,” she said.
Wright says her metamorphosis is also changing the material that she once worked closely with author James Baldwin during her debut. Her experience this time around holds more meaning because of the journey traveled. She hopes audiences can hear, and feel, the change.
“I would like for people to walk away and really get where I am,” she said. “I seriously feel like it's all just beginning.”
Wright hopes to present a backers audition of “Amen Corner: The Revival” by early August at Symphony Space and, ultimately, claiming a spot back on Broadway.