“When we broke up, it was kind of like having an identity crisis,” says Steadwell, 31. “If who you are is wrapped up in this person and [your] plans with them, who are you when they go?”
After the breakup, Steadwell and her ex wrote letters to each other to work through some of the grief they were feeling. Roughly 10 of Steadwell’s letters became the foundation for her first musical, “A Letter to My Ex,” which will make its debut at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, Md., this week.
“I wanted to have a show that felt like one continuous narrative instead of a disjointed [concert],” Steadwell says.
“A Letter to My Ex” charts the year following the breakup. The show contains new music in addition to tracks from Steadwell’s albums “Queer Love Songs” and “Breakup Songs,” which she describes as having “queer-affirming love songs with pop, soul and folk influences — if Joni Mitchell and Sade had a love child.”
Besides singing in the show, Steadwell also serves as the narrator, reading each letter aloud before it’s all translated into a sweeping musical with an ensemble of actors, a choir, band and dancers. There’s also visual imagery to complement the show, including videography that Steadwell shot herself.
Steadwell has never been shy when it comes to sharing personal details in front of an audience. But “A Letter to My Ex” is a feat that’s in a league all its own for Steadwell — one that’s forced her to step outside of her comfort zone.
“The first table read we did, I was really nervous because I am sincerely being open and vulnerable,” Steadwell says. “The blessing of this production is that the people who we chose for the cast and crew are really committed to it and they’re sensitive to that.”
“A Letter to My Ex” is a deeply personal project for Steadwell, but she also wants the musical to connect with audiences.
“I want other queer people and black women to feel seen and validated in all their experiences,” Steadwell says. “Just hearing a love song from a queer person is so healing because we’re always relating and translating our experiences to mainstream music.”
Steadwell plans to bring “A Letter to My Ex” to other cities after the show’s D.C. run. And yes, her ex does know about the musical, though Steadwell isn’t sure whether she’ll attend.
“She is always supportive of my work,” Steadwell says. “This began as a letter to her, but it’s evolved into a letter to myself.”
Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier, Md.; Thu. & Fri., 7 p.m., sold out.