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Natchez native noticed for off-Broadway excellence

Composer Heather Christian of Natchez holds the Obie Award that she won for her work with the production.
Composer Heather Christian of Natchez holds the Obie Award that she won for her work with the production.

BY MARY KATHRYN CARPENTER

Heather Christian’s love for all things theater started in Natchez and has led the native to the stages of New York City.

Christian began her performing career as the Virgin Mary when she was a student at Jefferson Street United Methodist Church’s preschool.

“I started performing when I was 3,” Christian said. “I was putting on shows in my living room. After that, I did what I could. We did productions at school and everyone gets a taste of performing through (the Historic Natchez) Pageant.”

Since that first performance, Christian has moved to the Big Apple, become a composer and was recently recognized for her work on the off-Broadway play “The World is Round.”

Christian — the daughter of Darlene and Dennis Christian — graduated from Cathedral High School in 2000 and attributes her start in theater to Natchez, but preschool and high school performances were not enough for Christian.

After high school, she took off to the concrete jungle to learn about acting at New York University.

She realized she had a love for songwriting shortly after graduating from the university and has made it a successful career so far. “The World is Round” is her second major score, following a play she scored called “Mission Drift.”

“Here in New York, successful female composers are few and far between,” said Kristen Sieh, who is the actress playing the main character role of Rose in the play. “Heather is up there for sure. Her (music) really stands out.”

Christian credits her love of the arts to her upbringing.

“I grew up in a very performance, art heavy family made up of pianists and singers,” Christian said.

She also credits several teachers she’s had, including Cheryl Rinehart, Alvin Shelby and Doris Burt.

Those inspirations eventually led her to New York and to compose all the music, as well as help write and choreograph, for “The World is Round,” which is the story of a young girl climbing a mountain to uncover answers to her questions about what is and is not real.

The play premiered at BAM theater in Brooklyn April 17-30.

“(Composing) was totally nerve wracking and totally wonderful,” Christian said. “I went to see the show every night. The whole experience was great.”

The entire process took about two years to complete, but the time spent was not wasted.

“The two years were absolutely worth it,” Christian said.

Her hard work paid off as Christian was presented with an Obie Award for her work on the play. Obie Awards are presented by The Village Voice newspaper in New York City and are likened to the Tony Awards, but are presented to off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway plays.

“An Obie award is a formal recognition from the critics of New York,” Christian said. “You’re supposed to get this recognition toward the beginning of your career while you are an emerging performer. It’s the first step on the road to recognition. It means people see me, which is amazing.”

Some of the other people seeing Christian’s hard work are her fellow musicians.

Amber Gray, a back up vocalist in Christian’s band — Heather Christian and the Arbornauts — finds Christian’s instruction unique and effective.

“(Christian) is very good at working with different types of musicians,” Gray said. “For example, I don’t read music, so she will sing with me until I match the note or use a hand motion to direct me to sing higher or lower.”

Christian said that the South, and specifically Natchez, plays a huge role in her composing.

“I find that the more time I spend out of the South, the more my songs become love notes to the South,” Christian said. “Southern music inspires all of my work. There is a song in ‘The World is Round’ that I entitled ‘Screaming Jay Lizard’ that is modeled after Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I reference a lot of blues and soul for my work.”

Christian’s New York friends certainly notice her Southern mannerisms.

“(Her Southern mannerisms) are just more endearing,” Gray said. “It’s very Heather. I went to Natchez for her wedding and everything made sense after that.”