HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – It has been a hard knock life for singer, dancer and actress Cheyenne Omani.
In February 2024, she will embrace a new role on the traveling Broadway production of "Peter Pan," after spending more than a year working with children in the national production of "Annie."
Through the 2023 season of "Annie," Omani worked as a "swing" and covered the seven children who formed the troupe of multifaceted orphans who are a critical part of the show. A "swing" is an understudy for specific roles, knowing lines, stage presence, dances and being able to fill in at a moment's notice.
During the "Annie" tour, Omani also served as dance captain for the production.
While part of her job was to ensure children in the show were ready to perform, she performed roles as well in the New York City-based hit musical. She played everything from a "shoe shiner to a homeless man."
"I loved performing and was always happy to step in if a fellow actor was out of the show due to illness or injury," she said.
At age 27 and standing 4 feet and 9 inches tall, it was amazing how effortlessly Omani could step into a child's role. "I'm pretty small," she said with a giggle. She was small enough to fill in for the children on stage without the audience members noticing there was an adult blending into the orphan ensemble.
This year, Omani will learn the parts for the ensemble members and understudy the roles of Wendy and Tiger Lilly in a newly adapted production of "Peter Pan." The show was adapted by First American playwright Larissa FastHorse.
Oddly enough, the first live theater production Omani saw at the tender age of 2 was "Annie." Her Potawatomi mother, Tonya Leonard, took her hand and unwittingly introduced her daughter to the life she would pursue. Cheyenne was mesmerized. The singing, dancing and comedic performances touched her heart and soul.
"Annie" is based on the 1930s cartoon "Little Orphan Annie." "Annie" was adopted away from an abusive orphanage by millionaire Oliver "Big Daddy" Warbucks.
It was not long after seeing "Annie" her mother enrolled her in ballet classes.
By age 11, Omani garnered her first paid acting gig in a local theater production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." She played Bob Cratchit's middle daughter, Belinda. She played the older sister to Tiny Tim, a character central to the show whose ill health and physical infirmity softens the heart of main character Ebenezer Scrooge.
"From age 2, after seeing 'Annie' with my mom, I knew what I wanted to do," Omani said with determination.
It was not only live theater that tugged at Omani's heart. She began learning guitar and wrote original music as a teenager. When she became proficient at the instrument she started a band – The Cheyenne McDonald Band – named after her Potawatomi/Chippewa grandmother, Connie McDonald.
Between 2010-2014, the band produced two albums, "Get Your Attention" and "I'm On Fire." It was a success and the band toured California performing. They traveled all over California. They were busy. They recorded three hours a day, five days a week and played three gigs a week, Omani said.
With live theater, music, dance and all of her other activities, Omani – a student enrolled in advanced placement courses since fourth grade – tested out of high school and graduated early.
She was on fire with a desire to start her performing career, she explained.
Finding Her Tribe and Ethnicity
Omani's First American heritage was apparent with her grandmother, Connie McDonald and mother, Tonya Leonard, both citizens of the Potawatomi tribe in Mayetta, Kansas.
Her Chickasaw heritage was discovered later when she learned that her great-great-grandfather, Joseph Bynum Jr., registered with the Chickasaw Nation on the Dawes Commission rolls.
Another interesting element is her father is African American and First American.
Omani's ethnicity is a mixture of Chickasaw, Choctaw, Potawatomi, Chippewa and African American.
She gleefully celebrates all her bloodline bonds.
She is so grateful.
"I have two First American tribal nations I can call my own," she said.
Famed director, singer and comedian Ken Page was the first to cast Omani in her first African American role – her favorite thus far in a blossoming career – in "Ain't Misbehavin'".
Mr. Page is African American and First American as well, so an immediate bond existed between them.
Omani has performed in many live musicals she "loved" including "Beauty and the Beast," "West Side Story," "Cinderella," "Shrek the Musical," and "Singin' in The Rain."
But her favorite role was "Charlaine" in "Ain't Misbehavin'".
In 2022, Mr. Page directed the all-African American musical cast for the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, commonly called CCAE Theatricals.
It celebrated the music of jazz pioneer Fats Waller, composer of "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose" along with about 400 other musical gems.
"Working with Ken was amazing. I felt very at home being in an all-African American cast," Omani said. "Ken reaffirmed my belief that as a mixed performer, I can be cast in roles that recognize all of the heritages that make up who I am as a person and as a performer," she said.
Cheyenne is a name that lets her celebrate her First American heritage and Omani – a Swahili word meaning "hope and faith" – allows her to highlight her African American bloodline as well.
"I am so incredibly grateful for the Chickasaw Nation," Omani proclaimed.
She enrolled in the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in Santa Maria, California, (PCPA) with financial assistance from the Chickasaw Nation.
"I owe a great deal of my success to PCPA and to the Chickasaw Nation. At PCPA, I would start the day at 9 a.m., and my day didn't end until about 11 p.m. I would spend eight hours in class (everything from ballet to accents/dialects) and then I would perform in a show eight times a week."
Though the schedule was grueling, Omani said she would not have had it any other way because she was learning to do what she loved.
"I learned so much about the business of being an actor and it is where I learned how to be a swing."
It is difficult to learn multiple roles and then to be able to pull them off with little to no rehearsal, but Omani enjoys the challenge.
The Chickasaw Nation also assisted her with tuition to a nutrition school, an education she still uses to this day to stay fit and healthy. It taught her the importance of physical activity every day and the relationship between healthy living and staying vibrant on stage.
"When you live out of a suitcase six months out of the year, maintaining your health is so important. Your body is your instrument. I don't think I could have succeeded with the challenges of living on the road without taking those courses paid for by the Chickasaw Nation," Omani said.
She utilizes that education every single day. She attends yoga classes before going to rehearsals because her body needs to be properly warmed up as a dancer. One role may demand a specific physical skill and the next role is completely different. Omani said, "I attempt to keep my routines as versatile and athletic as possible."
"Annie" since age 8
The irony of how large "Annie" loomed in Omani's life is astounding. She first saw it at age 2, and by age 8 she was performing as Molly in "Annie" for a local theater troupe.
In 2022, she was hired by Crossroads Live, a professional touring company based in Australia and Europe which expanded into American theaters.
Omani was a swing and understudy to many parts on the show. If someone got sick, it was her job to get on stage, know all the lines and all the choreography. When she joined the cast in January 2023, she had to learn all of the music and dance numbers in a week.
Interestingly, Omani finds the greatest rewards from smaller communities in smaller venues.
"Sometimes we are in a city for several weeks. We get to explore things and pick out a favorite restaurant or coffee shop. Other times, we are in a city for one night only, and it is those audiences that always seem the most grateful," Omani observed.
Small town theater lovers are usually more excited to see a professional Broadway play, and their enthusiasm reignites a spark in all of the performers and crew members.
When Omani is not on stage, she spends a lot of time with family. "We love cooking together and going on walks. My grandmother and I are very close. I call her my BFF (Best Friend Forever)," Omani said with a smile.
Being around family recharges her battery, she said. The pandemic shut down live theaters and many artists were unemployed. Her family saw her through that until theaters began operating again, Omani pointed out.
Omani would love to explore opportunities in film.
"They have so many musical films coming out now, and I really would love to be a part of it.
"I'm ready to get back on stage," Omani proclaimed.