Sarah Lawrence’s Jaela Cheeks-Lomax (‘17) is the rising star of the Sarah Lawrence drama department. Last semester, she played Julie Jordan in SLC Musical Theatre Collective’s Carousel.
When asked about the most inspiring people in her field, she doesn’t even have to think to respond. “Number one would be Sarah Vaughan, and has been since I was, like, seven and knew who she was,” she told me. “There’s something about the musicality in her voice. There’s something really haunting about it, but also comforting. I would copy her as a kid,” she added with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what I was doing.”
More recently -- and like so many others -- Cheeks-Lomax was struck by Cynthia Erivo’s performance in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. “I don’t think I’d ever heard someone sing with that much passion live, with so much conviction, and the acting...it was honestly so overwhelming,” she said fervently. “I’ve never experienced something like that.”
Cheeks-Lomax draws from the jazz and Broadway singers, Vaughan and Erivo, equally in terms of motivating and uplifting herself. That’s not surprising; she has belonged to two different musical worlds since her preteen years, growing up in Mount Vernon, NY.
According to Cheeks-Lomax, her passion began to surface before she even left the womb. “My parents got a stereo when my mom was pregnant with me,” she shared. “From there, she would listen to music for hours at a time, and that’s really where she thinks that I started to like music.”
Her first performances were in front of the fireplace, her first audience her family. She would imitate the lofty tones of the jazz singers she heard on tape. At age seven, when she began booking gigs at restaurants and other venues, she realized for the first time that her hobby could become a career.
At age twelve, Cheeks-Lomax began taking theatre classes at Young at Arts (YAA), a Bronxville-based performing arts organization, that according to the official website statement, strives to “[bring] together children of different backgrounds and means in a collaborative environment.” She also played roles in several stage productions, including the mother duck, Ida, in Honk! and Sarah Brown, the stringent missionary worker, in Guys and Dolls. For the young Cheeks-Lomax, the world of theatre opened up an entirely new musical perspective.
“The jazz came naturally,” she admitted, “[but] I’ve always had a hard time picking and choosing...I looked in these two different worlds and have been ever since.”
Now a theatre third with her sights set on Broadway, Cheeks-Lomax reflected on how her past has influenced her present: “It’s worlds apart, but in a good way. It showed me that I’ve grown—as you get older you know you want to challenge yourself a little bit more.”
One of Cheeks-Lomax’s most recent challenges involved returning to her alma mater, YAA, as a coach. As part of her conference project, she taught third through sixth grade actors yoga and mindfulness meditation. “I wanted to see if that would change some behavioral issues I was having, or if some of the students were shy,” she said.
Although she might seem flawless and unruffled, Cheeks-Lomax experiences difficulties just like any other performer. Her stresses range from pre-show jitters to being selected as the replacement lead for a show one week before opening night. (It’s a true story, and “the hardest thing that’s ever happened [to her].”)
Most taxing of all, in her opinion, is conveying the honesty that must accompany every role. “When you’re a performer...you have to literally lay out all of who you are. There’s no hiding behind anything. It’s…who you are, and you hope people like it.” Citing her previous SLC role as Julie Jordan, Cheeks-Lomax expands on wanting to make her performances feel as real as possible. “I don’t want to ever play a caricature,” she said. “‘Cause this is a real person, I am telling someone’s story, whether it was based off of someone’s real life or pieces that the writer has taken to create this character. So for me, it’s always staying true to that being real and raw and honest, that’s important to me.”
So, how does Cheeks-Lomax push through the challenges of her everyday life? Three words: positive vibes only. “It’s all about doing the best I can, but being positive about it. When you breathe positivity in, I think that you let positivity out as well. It’s not easy all the time; I do have my really off days, but I really try to practice positive mantras for myself. And I also look at quotes constantly; I have apps, I have people—my yoga teacher will give me something after each class.”
But optimism doesn’t always cure everything. Cheeks-Lomax admits that longer-term problems such as lack of inspiration can be harder to overcome. For those who find themselves in that position, Cheeks-Lomax offers some simple advice: “Never give up.”
“The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary,” she continued, quoting a one of those inspirational offerings. “If you want that success, you have to work. You have to, it’s just the way it is. But I also believe that when your time comes, it comes. When you’re supposed to land somewhere and have that success, it happens at the exact time that you’re supposed to have it.”
Peck Trachsel '20