Mermaids and Roses: The Harlem Home of a ‘Hadestown’ Star


Lillias White may pay the rent, but her rescue dog, LaKee, is inarguably the host and star of the house, a very packed 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 — way ahead of Ms. White or the resident Bengal cat, Mr. Jaxson Ifya Nasty. And she is first in the entryway to greet visitors. Effusively.

To be clear, Ms. White, 72, a star of the Tony-winning musical “Hadestown,” is warm and welcoming. (See the show now; she’s leaving March 17.) But it’s a daily battle not to be upstaged by LaKee, even considering Ms. White’s many Broadway credits (“Fela!,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Once on This Island” and “Chicago,” among others); her awards, notably a Tony for her performance as a streetwise hooker in the 1997 musical “The Life”; and her experiences as a solo act (she’ll be teaching a cabaret master class at the 92nd Street Y in early March).

Ms. White moved into the apartment more than 30 years ago, at a difficult time in her life. “My two kids and I were living with my mother in Coney Island, because I’d lost my apartment in Brooklyn,” she said. “I’d gotten divorced, and I lost everything.”

Occupation: Actor

Clear the decks: “I have a storage space a couple of blocks away. When the clutter gets to me, my niece comes over and helps me get rid of things.”

“We had been there a few months,” she continued, “and I applied to move to different places, and I applied to 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 got to get up here to look at it.’”

The messy kitchen had old cabinets and older roach droppings. Ms. White wanted two bedrooms, but the only apartment available was a one-bedroom. Still, it was good-sized and rent regulated. It also had a terrace, and even on a not-so-clear day it seemed that she could see forever.

“The view got me. It was a good old-fashioned New York view,” Ms. White said. “I just felt this was going to be a good space for my kids and me. I told the people, ‘I’ll take it.’ And a few weeks later, when I got the keys, I left my kids with my mother, and I came up here and I cleaned. And I cleaned. And I prayed.”

Along the way, there were stretches when she wasn’t working and on unemployment — such is the life of an actor. “It has been a blessing to have this apartment,” she said, “because the rent was reasonable and I was able to survive and take care of my children.”

Furniture and basic household items were a casualty of the divorce. Ms. White’s mother supplied some blankets, and the local Goodwill store came through with a round wooden dining table and four matching chairs, a bookcase and a plexiglass-fronted cabinet. They’re all still here.

Ms. White subsequently bought two brown leather sofas at Costco. One remains. And recently, she discovered the charms of La-Z-Boy. “It’s the most comfortable thing ever,” she said of her new off-white leather sleeper sofa.

She put down new flooring in the kitchen and replaced the cabinets — “Ikea, but very functional.” She also bought a new stove. And a few years ago, she had a carpenter make cutouts of the African continent in pieces of wood that she uses as radiator covers.

Here and there are show posters, window cards and photos of Ms. White as she appeared in “Chicago,” “Fela!” and “The Life.” But her passions extend far beyond the proscenium. She has a thing for mermaids. Two, made of metal mosaic tile, hang on the walls. Another is on a bookshelf.

She is also deeply fond of elephants. When the August Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” ended its run in Los Angeles, Ms. White, a cast member, lobbied for piece of the set: a stained-glass transom featuring a pachyderm.

It’s on the windowsill in the living room, next to an attenuated female figure that Ms. White had seen and admired on the counter at Amy’s Bread, a bakery in Hell’s Kitchen. “I patronized them regularly because they would send unsold bread to the theaters nearby and distribute it backstage,” she said. “It was gracious and kind. I would go into the store, and the proprietor would always have this statue sitting there.

“He didn’t know who the artist was or what the figure represented,” she continued, “but to me it represented power and sustainment, because it’s a woman with a halo of what I think are teeth. And she’s got wide hips and she’s holding onto some hardware. I really liked it, and when the proprietor died he willed it to me.”

On an overcast day in late January, a couple of roses were hanging on for dear life on the terrace. “They don’t know whether it’s spring or what,” said Ms. White, a committed gardener.

She also has been busily weeding indoors — clearing out a closet that she wants to repurpose as a recording studio for voice-over work. “I’ve been here a while — hence the clutter,” she said, looking around the living room.

An allée of sorts between the sofas and bookshelves is lined with exercise equipment, fans, a vacuum cleaner, an air purifier, stacks of Wee-Wee pads for LaKee, a flat-screen television and an illustration Ms. White rescued from the trash: a policeman and a Black child enjoying sandwiches together. “It reminds me that we can love each other,” she said.

A one-person sauna, a gift from a friend, currently holds a cache of blankets. “I told my housekeeper, ‘A reporter is coming. We have to put things away,’” Ms. White said.

She peered into a paper bag that was tucked into a cabinet. “Champagne,” she said, surprise in her voice. “I had no idea this was here.”

Ms. White is generally undaunted by the pileup, and certainly undefeated.

“Lillias is winning because I’m comfortable, OK?” 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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