Photo by Jordan Matter
Starting February 2, you can see FaTye—a performer who doesn’t use a last name—starring as Jim in the production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opening at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. After seeing his ease onstage and his natural charisma, you’d never guess the path that FaTye took to get to his place in the spotlight.
FaTye was born into the foster-care system, the result of coming from a big family with a mother who couldn’t care for him and all of his siblings. He grew up living in various homes around New York City, sometimes with his great-grandmother, with foster families, or in group homes. “I was living in ‘survival mode,’” he says.
At his lowest point, when he was 14, he lived by himself, squatting in the abandoned building where his mother used to live. “Sometimes my friends would let me stay with them,” he says. At the age of 16, he followed a brother to Children’s Village, a Dobbs Ferry organization that provides housing, education, and other services for troubled children. Though this move put him on the path to his true passion it didn’t solve all of his problems. “It was very difficult living there for me,” he says. “I was bullied.”
But living at Children’s Village meant FaTye could start attending school at Greenburgh 11. “At the school, it was different,” he says. “I was performing. I was in the show choir. I was lead singer in the band. I was doing musicals. It was amazing.” FaTye says he always enjoyed singing, with his family and in church, but he had no formal training. He was accepted into a program where he could continue attending school at Greenburgh 11 and live on his own in an apartment in Elmsford, which ended his rootlessness. He’s lived there for the past seven years.
Sandy Mallah, the former superintendent at Greenburgh 11, was one of the first people to spot FaTye’s performing potential, first after a school production of Guys and Dolls—FaTye was the first sophomore to land a lead role—and later at a school concert where he did his best James Brown. “Something came alive in him when he was performing, and there was an extraordinary talent there,” she says.
“I see hundreds of kids at the Lighthouse Youth Theatre, and I knew the minute I saw him that FaTye was something special,” says John Fanelli, the founder and artistic director of Thornwood’s Lighthouse Youth Theatre and the Family Theatre Company, who cast FaTye in Big River. “He has a gift. Audiences are just drawn to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him on Broadway some day.”
Mallah encouraged FaTye to continue on the stage beyond school. She stepped into the role of mentor—FaTye sometimes refers to her as his “godmother”—and, on his behalf, she got in touch with programs like the Broadway Training Center of Westchester (which offered him a 75-percent scholarship). “She pushed me out there,” FaTye says. Mallah and her husband also took FaTye to his first Broadway show, Wicked, as a present for his eighteenth birthday. “From that day, I was hooked,” he says. “I must have gone to fifty shows that year. I went every week.”
Though FaTye is a natural singer and performer, he still had a lot of ground to make up in his training. Luckily, the Westchester theater community embraced him. “Ninety percent of my training happened in Westchester,” he says. FaTye worked with the Broadway Training Center in Hastings-on-Hudson, the Actors Conservatory Theatre in Yonkers, the Lighthouse Youth Theatre in Thornwood, and the Lagond Music School in Elmsford, among others. “He’s incredibly hard-working,” Mallah says. “At Children’s Village, on one snowy day, he just got up early and shoveled all the walks.”
After high school, he studied at the American Musical Dramatic Academy and the Collaborative Arts Project before attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Not wanting to give up his apartment in Elmsford, he’d wake up at 4 am to commute to his 8 am classes. “I was never late,” he says.
Now, he’s starring as Jim in Big River, a show he calls “the pinnacle of my life” because of its parallels to his personal history. “Jim tries to get away from hardship, knowing something better is out there for him,” he says. “That’s who I am. I was always looking for the light, for the freedom.”
Big River runs at the Westchester Broadway Theatre from February 2 to February 26.