Ariana DeBose first gained notice as the Bullet, the personification of Death, in the original cast of the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.” Now, her lively portrayal of Anita in “West Side Story” has made her the toast of Hollywood.
The 31-year-actress won the Oscar for best supporting actress Sunday for her searing portrayal of a Puerto Rican immigrant working as a seamstress in New York and trying to guide her boyfriend’s sister Maria through the pain of first love.
DeBose’s win for her work in Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the classic musical comes 60 years after Rita Moreno took home a golden statuette for the same role, and she lauded the legendary star in a tearful acceptance speech.
“I’m so grateful, your Anita paved the way for tons of Anitas like me,” she told Moreno, in the audience at the Dolby Theatre.
The Black actress, who is of Puerto Rican descent, celebrated her identity, describing herself as “an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her life and strength in art.”
“To anybody who has ever questioned your identity, ever, ever, ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: there is indeed a place for us.”
The Academy Award win capped a dream season for DeBose, who also won a Screen Actors Guild award, a Bafta, a Critics Choice award and a Golden Globe.
She infused fresh energy into the role of Anita, using her passionate dancing and delicate singing to carry the feisty character through the indignities of being an immigrant, the slaying of boyfriend Bernardo, and attempted rape.
Her delivery of “America,” one of the show’s signature songs, in a bright yellow and red dress, is a highlight of the film.
“I was painfully aware that this is a beloved character, and there are certain portrayals that are considered the gold standard,” she told Vanity Fair in an interview in the run-up to the Oscars.
“But I knew if I focused on that, I would fail.”
From Great White Way to big screen
DeBose grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was raised by her public school teacher mother. She trained as a dancer on weekends, ultimately working at the studio behind the desk and as an assistant to pay for her own classes.
As a teenager, she got a break, making her television debut in 2009 on the dance competition show “So You Think You Can Dance,” getting to the Top 20 before being eliminated.
DeBose then moved to New York, and roles on the Great White Way came quickly. After turns in “Motown: The Musical” and a revival of “Pippin,” Lin-Manuel Miranda hired her to be in his hip-hop history blockbuster “Hamilton.”
She was a member of the ensemble, but became known for her foreshadowing role as the Bullet, ever-present when death came calling for Hamilton himself and others in the show.
“OK, I’m playing an inanimate object. Awesome,” she told late show host Jimmy Fallon. “So I just started filling in the blanks and I said, ‘What about an omen of Death? Maybe she’s like Death itself.'”
She joked: “No one but me knew that.”
In the interview with Vanity Fair, DeBose said she knew that to be taken seriously as a triple threat — dancer, singer, actor — she would have to “go in and sing just as well as the singers who move.”
“Not only that, I needed to try to be better than them because I’m a woman of color,” she added.
DeBose then earned a Tony nomination for playing “Disco Donna” in the jukebox musical “Summer” about the life of Donna Summer.
After appearing in Netflix’s film adaptation of the musical “The Prom” alongside Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, DeBose won the role of Anita. Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, said he knew she was right from minute one.
Singing a lyric from “America” about babies crying and bullets flying, she “looked haunted and frightened and grief-stricken, all in the space of that one little line. And then turned on the dazzle,” Kushner told Vanity Fair.
Once the film opened worldwide in December, DeBose was the instant Oscar frontrunner and has been in demand, hosting venerable US comedy sketch show “Saturday Night Live” in January.
She has said she loved filling the formidable shoes of Moreno — who played a new role in Spielberg’s film — and relished the opportunity to present an Afro-Latina take on the character.
“She showed us that there was possibility of success,” DeBose told AFP in December, referring to Moreno.
“For my character specifically, now young Afro-Latinas finally get to see themselves as a main character in the context of this story.”