ST. PETERSBURG — Martina Sykes started trying to out sing her mother in church when she was just five years old. Fast-forward more than 20 years later, this same tenacious little girl, now all grown up, is on her way to an early rehearsal to go over changes to a script. And it’s not just any typical script!
“Berry Gordy said that as long as he’s alive, that script is always going to change,” said Sykes.
The script that she was referring to is for the traveling Broadway hit show “Motown-The Musical” that will be touring the United States for the next year and a half. The musical played to packed audiences at the David A. Straz Center in downtown Tampa from March 17 – 22.
Sykes played the roles of Gwen Gordy, Mary Wells, Cindy Birdsong and one of the Vandellas from the super group Martha and the Vandellas.
A St. Petersburg native, Sykes attributes her success to growing up in a nurturing community environment.
“It’s funny because we’re considered to be a small city or small town, but there’s so much talent that comes out of here,” said Sykes who shared that so much talent continues to flow from St. Pete to New York and beyond.
“Everybody I know like Sir Brock, LaQuelle, Ephraim, Lashawn, Janderline, Archie – all of these people can sing, and better than I’ve heard in New York,” she said. St. Pete breeds a certain level of talent … everything is at a higher stake!”
The next thing that you might expect to hear is how this talented group of young people have stepped over each other to get that first big break, but Sykes reveals another unique side of the community that she cherishes.
“We were always creating; we were always pushing each other to get better whether it was ‘I’m trying out this new choreography and I want to try it out on you.’ So we would go in the front or in the backyard and learn new steps for an upcoming game or talent show. You could also find us singing in three-part harmony or writing songs. There was constant creativity going on.”
Another strong influence on Sykes was her big brother Ephraim. “We didn’t know Ephraim could sing or dance until he got into Perkins and was in the fifth grade,” said Sykes. “Seeing him excel in dance and how dedicated he was to his craft and learning about it made me want to do it even more.”
Sykes would face a major challenge while attending the Pinellas County Center for the Arts in Musical Theatre at Gibbs High School.
“When I got to Gibbs things started happening, and things got really, really rough. I felt discouraged because of things I was going through personally with my family and then at school where you were in constant competition with your peers. It just made me want to stop it all together.”
Sykes was about to let go of her dream of being a performing artist when she entered the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her ambitions were to get a degree to work as either a sports agent, in public relations or press agent. She was content with her change of career focus.
“I just wanted get a master’s degree and be happy,” said Sykes.
However, about a month before she was to graduate from UF, she got a call.
“Ephraim called me and said, ‘I know you said you didn’t want to sing anymore or do musical theatre anymore, but I really think you should come up here and give it a try.’”
Big brother was subtle but determined to not let his little sister tuck her talent away in a dark closet. He told her that growing up and seeing her talent he knew what she had to offer the world. Ephraim told her that she couldn’t just sit on the gift that God gave her. He encouraged her to try and if it didn’t work out within six month, she could always go back and get her degree.
The script for her destiny in life would shift once again. She came to terms with the pain she felt from her mother and father’s divorce and resumed her dream. After all, she was put on this Earth to fulfill a purpose.
Going to the Big Apple
That constant flow of creativity among family and friends that Sykes talked about would be the catalyst for her journey to New York City, a booming metropolis of over eight million people. When she arrived, the events that followed made it crystal clear that Ephraim’s foresight was dead on the money.
“When I moved up there, I moved in the house with Sir Brock, LaQuelle and Raymond,” said Sykes.
The three dancers that she moved in with were the same young people that pushed each other in backyard rehearsals, that went to the same schools and that performed together in “The Chocolate Nutcracker,” The Black History Pageant and the Dundu Dole African Dance Ballet. A support network of close friends pursuing their artistic dreams from her hometown was already in place when she arrived.
“Everybody from St. Pete – we were under one roof, and we really pushed each other to accept those failures, those rejections and all the no’s that we got at auditions. We helped each other get better,” said Sykes.
When she had to learn an 8 count for an audition, she had personal tutors right in the house.
“We’d take the couch and move it into the hallway to learn dance steps. When LaQuelle needed help with her singing, we would pitch in. We called ourselves the house of talent because it became a house of always producing creativity,” Sykes remarked.
An example of the group’s dedication to their individual crafts would be reflected in vision boards that they created to project their goals, aspirations and dreams. Sykes said that they started what they called “Creative Tuesday” where the artists went into their own rooms and worked on choreography, a song, a poem or a new instrument for one to two hours and then presented what they created or learned to the group.
God’s grace trumps imps of doubt
The dark side is always lurking in the background, waiting patiently to seize the opportunity to pillage, plunder and devour. As the rejections between performance jobs mounted, Sykes began to question herself and what she was doing.
Before she went on the audition for Motown, she called her parents crying and said she was done and wanted to come home. She was getting short on money and didn’t want to keep asking her parents and her brother for support.
Her whole family was really supportive of her dreams and didn’t want her tied down to a 9 to 5 job and miss auditions. They helped her out financially, but she felt like a burden to them.
“I felt like I kept hitting the wall and things weren’t going the way I wanted them to go,” she stated.
That call took place on the Friday before the Motown audition, which was on the following Thursday.
“My parents said, ‘You know what, just stay until the Motown auditions, see how that goes, and if it doesn’t work out you can come home for a little while and we’ll figure it out,’” she recalled.
She went to audition that Thursday, and got the call on Friday that she had booked it!
Sykes was now a cast member in the Broadway hit touring show “Motown – The Musical.” She has been touring now for exactly one year. Sykes said that she learned how Motown had helped shaped history such as how people responded when they heard the captured recording that Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. She also reflected on how Motown put African-American artists in the mainstream of the American music scene.
“Black artists recorded and released songs, but they weren’t played until white groups did covers of their songs and sold millions,” said Sykes. “Motown helped change that in a big way.”
The “yes” of “yeses!”
Sykes first encounter with Motown great Berry Gordy occurred at her final audition. She was really nervous and intentionally did not wear her contacts or her glasses because she didn’t want to read their facial expressions.
She wanted to be able to do her thing and zone out. Once she was in her zone auditioning, she saw Gordy banging on the table and raising his hands and smiling, Sykes recalled.
“When I thought about it,” Sykes said, “this is the same person that auditioned Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Michael Jackson, and here it is that I’m standing in front of him auditioning. And that feeling I have not been able to put in words yet!”
Sykes said the anxiety and the weight she felt as she left the audition room was replaced with an overwhelming sense of humbleness and gratefulness. “I am blessed, I’m loved and I’m appreciated,” she exclaimed.
“All of the no’s I got over the last three years … this one yes made all the difference because this yes is not just a casting director or Broadway yes, this yes is a legendary yes,” Sykes said
Sykes is blessed with three families: her immediate family, her creative family and her Bethel Community Baptist Church family. Every night during the performance, a group of Bethel members, as well as former teachers, checked her out in “Motown – The Musical.”
A full busload of Bethel members pulled out from the church’s parking lot last Sat., March 21 to see her perform. The next day, and the last day of the show, Sykes did what she always does — she came to sing for her church family during morning worship. She took a few moments before returning to The Straz Center to take pictures with many people who nurtured her and saw her grow up.
“They were always there for me, opened up their homes and took me in especially during those teen years you know. Mother Reese and Mr. and Mrs. Hosey — I was at their house all the time! Thank you so so much,” she said.
“I am grateful to God that he blessed me with such great parents because there’s nobody else in the world that I could or would want to see as my parents,” Sykes said as she began to choke up.
For the next wave of performing arts talent in St. Pete that will be arriving on the scene, Sykes suggested that they “point to themselves and focus on what they do best.” However, what she feels is most important if you want to succeed is having faith in your higher power “because that’s what will get you through those hard times.”
Martina Sykes in the daughter of Rev. Dr. Emanuel Sykes and Belinda Sykes.