‘Hairspray’ star Sandie Lee is an overcomer

Dennis J. Freeman
5 min readMay 6


‘Hairspray’ star Sandie Lee is an overcomer

(News4usonline) — “Hairspray” star Sandie Lee knows where she’s been. Lee has seen her share of racial inequality. She grew up in Mississippi. So, she knows what time it is when it comes to having to deal with race issues.

Ironically, one of the major parts of “Hairspray” is the lack of race equity that confronts the social norm that sees Black people get second-hand treatment as citizens in the year 1962. The unofficial running theme in “Hairspray,” the hit Broadway musical, is acceptance. Back in the 1960s, acceptance was something that Black people did not fully have.

“Big, Blonde & Beautiful” — Sandie Lee as “Motormouth Maybelle” in Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Jim Crow racism reared its ugly head. Instead of running away from the matter or ignoring it altogether, “Hairspray,” deals with race head-on as it does with body-shaming, peer pressure, classism, and self-acceptance. Lee, who plays Motormouth Maybelle in “Hairspray,” is front and center.

As the show progresses and spirals towards its dramatic climax, Lee, as Motormouth Maybelle, delivers the show’s most potent song. When Lee sings “I Know Where I’ve Been,” the song pierces your soul. It hits you right in the gut and makes you wonder why I am sitting on the sidelines doing nothing while freedoms and liberties are being trampled on.

It is perhaps the most stirring moment of “Hairspray,” now on a national tour. The tension-filled build-up to that scene is what makes that moment shine, Lee said in a phone interview with reporter Dennis J. Freeman.

“The scene before is the most important part of the song, is before we even sing it,” Lee said. “It’s the buildup of letting the children know, you know, not to give up, and giving them insight to what I’ve been through as Motormouth. You know, you can’t get lazy with things…get crazy. That’s one of my lines. You can’t give up on something that you believe in.

“You can’t give up on change. You can’t give up on progression. You have to keep fighting until, you know, there is a change until your voice is heard. So, that for me, is the climax…If I don’t say anything else to these children, I have to let them know like I know where I’ve been, and I see where things can go, but you guys have to go on this journey with me. You can’t give up now because what you do now determines who you’ll be in the future.”

Lee said there are some commonalities that she shares with Motormouth Maybelle. The song “I Know Where I’ve Been,” reflects that connection.

“I always find like personal things in my life to connect with,” Lee said. “I’m from the South. I’m from Mississippi. So, I had my own experiences with inequality and racism. I’ve also heard stories from my parents, my grandparents, and things like that. And so, I have a different connection with that scene and with that song for those reasons.”

Motormouth Maybelle is a larger-than-life character in “Hairspray.” We all know her. She’s loud. In every way. She commands attention whenever she speaks. She is adorned with outlandish blonde hair. She struts with a dash of sassiness to her walk. She is also a voice of reason and wisdom as the host of “Negro Day” for a white radio station.

(From L) Joi D. McCoy as “Little Inez” and Charlie Bryant III as “Seaweed J. Stubbs” and the Company of
Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The idea of integrating color or race separatism into a celebration of overcoming is astounding. For Lee, what’s also worth celebrating is the fact that she can perform at all. According to Lee, she missed six weeks of the show due to complications she suffered from coming down with Covid-19.

Those six weeks were difficult, Lee said. Her first night of returning to the stage was the opening night of the show’s run at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, on April 18. “Hairspray” is on stage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles until May 21 before it departs the Southland to conclude its national tour.

Lee, who starred as Shug Avery on the Broadway national tour of “The Color Purple,” said she is just grateful to be back on stage doing what she loves to do.

“That was my first show,” Lee said about her Orange County arrival. “I’ve been on sick leave for like six weeks, so that was my first show back with the tour,” Lee said. “For me, Tuesday night, it was truly like I know where I’ve been. I prayed hard to be back on that stage. This Covid …it caused havoc in my body. I got ill. I was hoping that I would be able to finish the tour.

“And by the grace of God, I was able to return. I was experiencing some symptoms for five months. My body just responded in a weird way during a performance, and I had to go home. I had to be rushed home. I ended up having to have a procedure done. We had some respiratory issues, but I’m okay now. It’s the journey. Either way it goes, I wasn’t going to give up. I’ve come too far to give up.”

Lead photo caption: “I Know Where I’ve Been”–(center) Sandie Lee as Motormouth Maybelle and the Company of Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel



Dennis J. Freeman

The storyteller. More than a journalist. I write about sports and social justice. Editor of News4usonline.com and Black Sports United. Howard University alum.