Original 'Sparkle' Cast Member Shines Again

Dorian Harewood, Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, Dwan Smith and Philip Michael Thomas (Warner Bros. 1976)
Dorian Harewood, Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, Dwan Smith and Philip Michael Thomas (Warner Bros. 1976)

(The Root) A week after the Sparkle reboot, starring the late Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks, hits theaters on Aug. 17, fans of the cult film classic can see at least one of the original film's stars in concert. However, they are out of luck if they had hoped to see a reunion of the full original cast.


Lonette McKee, who played the starstruck, drug-addled singer Sister Williams in the 1976 movie, is set to perform with vocalist and bass guitarist Michael Henderson, on Aug. 24 at New York City's Aaron Davis Hall . McKee says she'll croon hits from the movie, as well as other songs from her film and theater career.

Earlier this year, the stage act had initially been billed as the Sparkle Live! reunion concert and was primed to bring some of the flick's original stars — including Philip Michael Thomas, Dwan Smith, Dorian Harewood, Tony King and Dewayne Jessie — together for the first time in 36 years and the first time ever live onstage. McKee said she'd mulled over the idea for a decade and spent the past year trying to bring all the actors together. "Some of [the original cast] stayed in touch on and off, and we're all still friends, so [the thought] of doing this occurred to me many times," she told The Root. "Especially since most of us come from a music-theater background. Then, when I found out about the remake I said, 'I can't think about and talk about this anymore, I have to do it.' "

But when it became difficult to book some of her former cast mates — including Irene Cara, who played Sparkle's title character but did not want to participate in a reunion, and Thomas, who McKee says had agreed to participate but later canceled — she switched gears. "When Philip bowed out leaving us very little time, [I thought] I can't package the show and say it's a reunion without the stars being there," McKee explained.

Thomas, who recently parted ways with his longtime agent, could not be reached for comment. Cara, when contacted, said she'd enjoyed doing the original film and thought fondly of her cast mates, but had since moved on. "Sparkle was such an incredible experience for me," she told The Root. "It was my first big Hollywood film …  but I'm not interested in revisiting the past. I don't have the time for it or [the desire]."

Instead, Cara said she has spent the past decade focusing on Hot Caramel, her all-female R&B band. The group is gearing up to go on tour soon. But hitting the road will have to wait until Cara, who said she's recuperating from foot surgery, can travel again. The singer-actress said she'll be MIA for the remake's premiere, too. "I will see [the movie] eventually," she said. "I went through this with Fame last year, so I'm getting used to Irene Cara remakes at this point. It's very flattering — I smile about it. But I live in the present. I have a lot on my plate right now, and that's what I focus on."

Still, Cara said she thought it was an honor for the original cast to have had Whitney Houston involved in the new production. "I'm very happy that she loved our film enough to remake it," she said. "I've heard rumors for 10 years that everyone and their mother was remaking this movie. When I got the call last year that they were actually filming it, it really surprised me because it has been like the boy who cried wolf with this project. But I hope it will be a shining moment in [Houston's] legacy."


McKee — who describes herself as a big fan of both Houston ("I didn't know her, but who doesn't love Whitney?") and Sparks ("Jordin is sweet. She has star quality written all over her.") — said she is excited about seeing the new film. And though the cast reportedly wasn't approached to take part in the remake, which was produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes, don't expect to see a repeat of the drama that surrounded the 2006 film adaptation of Dreamgirls. At the time, original cast member Jennifer Holliday claimed that she had been snubbed because the movie's producers didn't ask her to participate in the film.

"I don't need to be involved with the remake," McKee said. "It has nothing to do with me. I did my work. One project is one project, another is another. It's an honor to have been involved with something people think highly enough of that they want to remake it."


The remake has drummed up buzz because it marks both Houston's final film performance and pop star Sparks' film debut. But the original was a phenom in its own right, helping to make stars out of those in front of and behind the camera, including Thomas, who went on to star in the '80s TV hit Miami Vice, the prolific director Joel Schumacher, who co-wrote the Sparkle screenplay, and McKee, who has gone on to appear in some 40 TV and film projects, including a number of Spike Lee joints, such as Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and She Hate Me.

McKee, who currently teaches an acting workshop at the City College of New York, has a slew of upcoming music, film and TV projects, including an urban tragedy, Dream Street, which will serve as her directorial debut. "Sparkle was one of those magical moments in moviemaking history when all the elements came together," McKee concluded. Perhaps the new cast will soon be able to say the same thing.


N. Sheree Saunders is a New York City-based writer.