May 14—ATLANTA — Her name means “she has been crowned” in the language of her father’s native east African village. The name seems fitting for the talented Teshomech Olenja, who will be on stage at Atlanta’s Fox Theater this month.
The Albany native is part of the Tony and Grammy Award-winning “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” which has performances at The Fox Theater May 20-22. Teshomech (pronounced “To show me”) Olenja is a swing, or understudy, who joined the national tour in October 2021.
“The show is phenomenal,” Olenja said during an interview as the tour reached Charleston, SC, this week. “Even if you don’t know Carole King’s music, you do. I didn’t know her story. She created such a huge legacy, and it blew my mind. She wrote ‘Natural Woman.’ I always thought Aretha Franklin wrote that. The show is funny and will make you laugh and cry and sing along.”
As a swing, Olenja has to be ready to perform multiple roles in the cast. She is called upon whenever someone has a day off or is unable to perform, such as the cast member who was injured more than a month ago and whose role Olenja has covered ever since.
The “Beautiful” tour has been a big career break for the young woman who got her start singing at Second Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Albany. Raised by her mother, Verna Gaines, also a native of Albany, with help from her late grandparents, Roosevelt and Elizabeth Gaines, Olenja knew as a little girl she wanted to sing, dance and perform. She said she remembers watching her first musical at her older brother Ricory Green’s school, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” and decided there and then it was what she wanted to do.
Olenja’s path was not always smooth. While she laughs about it now, one can only imagine her disappointment when she auditioned for the school talent show in third grade and didn’t make the cut.
Olenja began taking dance classes at the Ritz Cultural Center in Albany and was a junior Passionette with the Albany State University dance team. She is now trained in ballet, jazz, tap and performs classical music, as well as musicals and, of course, gospel music, because, she says, “That’s how I was raised.”
Olenja grew up attending Albany’s Northside Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and Robert A. Cross Middle School before moving to Atlanta and enrolling at Carver School of the Arts, graduating in 2011. She began classes in voice and chorus and then moved into acting at the school.
It was at Carver that she began building a following that continues to this day. Aunts, uncles, cousins and other members of her family, along with childhood friends from Albany, would travel to Atlanta to see Olenja perform in Carver’s spring musicals. She said many of those same family and friends from Albany are expected to attend “Beautiful” at The Fox. Olenja laughs and said her phone “has been ringing off the hook” and that she might have 100 people coming up for the show in Atlanta.
“What is so special to me about performing is you get a response from the audience,” she said. “I have had people say, ‘You’ve changed my life.'”
Serving as an inspiration to others, she said, is at the top of her list, adding that she tells her younger cousins they can do anything they want in life.
“And you can have fun while doing it,” she added. “I have fun.”
Even her first professional job was fun as Olenja was decided to perform on Carnival Cruise Line ships. In fact, while she was working for Carnival, 25 members of her Albanian family signed up for a cruise to see her perform as the ship set sail for the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands.
Olenja had just graduated from college, The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, before joining Carnival Cruise Lines. After a year performing on the ships, she headed back to New York and went on tour with a children’s theater that performed at schools across the US
Through the years, Olenja’s school and professional credits include “Goddess” (Workshop/Songlab) with Berkeley Rep and MCC Theatre; “Beehive” (Phoenix Theater); “Seussical” (Sour Kangaroo); “The Wiz” (Dorothy); “The Bluest Eye” (Claudia) and she also appeared in a commercial for Anheuser-Busch’s Holiday campaign in 2020.
“Our tour will end in June,” Olenja said, adding that she will miss the many friends she has made in the show. “I love these people, but it’s how the business goes.”
Her next project is “Goddess,” in which she plays part of a trio of girls in the pre-Broadway production.
Olenja said she is “nervous and excited” about “Beautiful” coming to Atlanta. Rehearsals keep her busy, but she said she likes to unwind by skating. She brings her skates with her and can often be found skating backstage during rehearsal breaks. Skating is something she has enjoyed since childhood. She spent most weekends at Stardust skating rink in Albany and even had her 10th birthday there.
“I didn’t know I was country until I left Albany,” Olenja laughs. “But I’m a product of Albania, Georgia, and everyone knows that’s where I’m from. … I wear it proudly, and I’m just proud to represent it.”
“Beautiful” tells the true story of musical legend Carole King, who began as part of a songwriting team with her husband, Gerry Goffin, and friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann to become one of the most successful solo acts in popular music history. Some say she wrote the soundtrack “for a generation” with such songs as “I Feel the Earth Move,” “One Fine Day,” “Natural Woman,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and others. For ticket information, visit www.foxtheatre.org