Mekhai Lee, 18, loved nothing more than to sit down and watch the movie “Shrek” when he was a child. He envisioned himself as the goofy Donkey character, going on fun adventures with Shrek and Shrek’s princess-ogre wife Fiona.
So when he learned his high school, Northwest School of the Arts, would be doing “Shrek” for its spring musical, he knew he had to audition for Donkey.
But the more he looked at the script and the musical score, the more the role of Shrek appealed to him. It was a challenge – with Shrek in at least 12 songs alone.But Lee saw this role as a way of leaving his school on a good note.
So he auditioned for the lead role instead and got it – which landed him the Blumey Award for best actor in May and which eventually landed him one of the three finalist spots for best actor at the National High School Musical Theater Awards on June 30. It’s there where he made his Broadway debut, performing “Goodbye” from “Catch Me If You Can” on the Minskoff Theater, the home of the Broadway production of “The Lion King.”
As a finalist, he also received a $2,500 scholarship.
“Winning the Blumeys was an honor, and I was really excited to go to the Jimmys,” Lee said. “And the Jimmys was an intense experience with nonstop working – I had a lot of fun – but I learned a lot.”
The awards, also known as The Jimmy Awards, double as a week-long Broadway “boot camp” and competition for the students who have won high school musical theater awards throughout the U.S. They receive training from Broadway actors and veterans in New York City, and at the end of the week, Lee and the other 55 actors perform for the judges for the chance to be named the best actor or actress. The students rehearsed all week non-stop at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, with most days going from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Lee wasn’t the only Charlotte student at the Jimmys – He was also joined by Carmel Christian School student Ashlyn Uribe. And Lee is the second Charlotte teen and Northwest student to be named a finalist in the competition. Last year, Eva Noblezada was named a finalist, and now, she plays the lead role of Kim in “Miss Saigon” in London’s West End.
Lee fell into musical theater with a nudge from one of his theater teachers, Corey Mitchell. Mitchell told him to audition for the school’s production of “The Wedding Singer” in his freshman year, and the rest is history. From there, Lee went on to secure roles at Northwest such as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet,” Riff in “West Side Story” and Mister in “The Color Purple;” and he’s even performed in a series of community productions at places like the Children’s Theatre and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.
Mitchell said Lee’s immense talent and passion gives him the ability to pursue an acting career.
“It really did not surprise me that he was a finalist at the Jimmys because there is something that Mekhai can do where he walks in and turns it on that makes it so that no one can watch anyone else,” Mitchell said. “He becomes absolutely compelling on stage.”
Northwest gave him a chance to be an actor, but the Jimmy Awards gave him confidence that he could actually do it.
“It's given me confidence,” Lee said. “Because I was so nervous, I felt like this was something that I could definitely do.”
Now, Lee will be attending the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem in the fall as a theater major.
“I’m telling everybody I want to go to school. I want to get better. I want to be the best that I can be,” Lee said. “For me, that’s going to school so I can do that.”