Feasterville’s Ryann Melissa Davis may only be wrapping up her first year at Neshaminy High School, but the local teen is already boasting quite the acting resume.
Since deciding in the fifth grade to embark on an entertainment path after seeing her brother perform in his middle school production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Davis has shined in a number of shows, including Neshaminy Summer Stock’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as the New York Musical Festival Gala.
Most recently, Davis pushed her acting chops to a new level, appearing in her first digital video series, Voice of Majesty. Written and directed by filmmaker Robert X. Golphin, the five-part narrative drama centers on a group of aspiring musicians who find themselves in the Philadelphia home of preeminent contralto Marian Anderson, the legacy of whom Golphin believed needed to be in the spotlight.
In Voice of Majesty, Davis stars in episode four, “You’re Not Her,” as Candace.
“Candace is a lot like me in the sense that she’s a big dreamer. She really admires Marian Anderson and the support that she’s given, and how hard she worked to get to where she was in the performing arts,” Davis said. “In the episode, she’s fighting with her brother, who is being negative and saying that it’s unrealistic, her expectations. But she uses Marian Anderson’s work, and her as a person, as inspiration to keep going, and practices and works hard to get where she wants to go.”
Davis was asked by Golphin to appear in the series after he discovered several performance clips online.
“Her beautiful voice is what caught our attention first. That was before we even knew if she could act or not,” he said. “She’s a gifted vocalist. Then seeing her in action on the set was a thrill because, despite her age, she is focused, determined and serious about her craft. I could see the wheels turning in her eyes when she turned off Ryann and turned on the character.”
According to Golphin, Davis served as an inspiration to the rest of the cast, especially those with less acting experience.
“Just by her being who she is, she kind of influenced other actors to either step up their game or be just as passionate about what they were doing as she was,” he said. “With every beat and breath of performance, that craft dedication shows. She completely loses herself in the character, and that’s the mark of a great actor, in my opinion.”
When Davis learned she landed the role in Voice of Majesty, the name “Marian Anderson” was completely unfamiliar to her. But she fixed that immediately, spending hours researching and viewing videos of performances, including a powerful rendition of “My Country Tis Of Thee” at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Being immersed in her environment, and learning so much about her, I think that she doesn’t get enough credit for all the work that she did in the world, and what an amazing performer and artist she was,” Davis said.
For Golphin, a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) and an Oak Lane native, this is exactly what he hopes to accomplish through Voice of Majesty — informing the next generation of Anderson’s legacy.
“Marian Anderson had a one-of-a-kind voice. She had black skin in a time when black people were shunned, and that’s putting it nicely. Her talent made her an act that the masses wanted to see, but not all of America considered her an actual citizen or person,” Golphin said. “She was supposed to sing at Constitution Hall, but racism stopped that from happening. It was first lady Roosevelt who arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead. This was a woman who united our country through song. She sang before 80,000 people in the flesh, and millions of people at home. It wasn’t just a performance. It was a statement. I don’t think enough people are aware of her plight as an artist and an activist.”
Golphin first heard of the singer during his years at CAPA when some of his peers were granted the Marian Anderson Scholarship. One was Jillian Patricia Pirtle, the current CEO of the National Marian Anderson Museum, located at 762 Martin St., Philadelphia.
“I came to realize that not enough people, and certainly not enough young people, are aware that this place even exists,” he said. “I wanted to create something that was entertaining but informative, that would encourage people to want to know more about Marian’s life, and also hopefully visit the museum itself. That’s pretty much what the impetus of the project was.”
Most of Voice of Majesty was shot onsite at the museum, with each of the characters finding themselves there at some point in their respective quests to become musicians. Pirtle makes a special appearance in each episode, serving as a “moral compass” for the young artists.
“We were in Marian’s space, and the energy of Marian was there the whole time,” Golphin said. “It was an amazing experience. The entire cast and crew, throughout the filming, were constantly learning more and more stuff about this woman.”
Upon seeing the finished product, Davis couldn’t have been happier with the result.
“I always get very nervous seeing my work. I’m more used to stage work, so filming and being able to watch back what you did in real time is such a cool experience,” Davis said. “I really love how the whole series came out. I think that it’s an important message that’s getting out in educating people about the life of Marian Anderson.”
As for Golphin, who has been making his own films since the age of 12, the process of creating Voice of Majesty is right up there with his appearance on HBO’s The Wire and in The Great Debaters alongside Denzel Washington.
Voice of Majesty is available at robertxgolphin.com/screeningroom, and is expected to play the film festival circuit in the coming months. ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org