Tina Turner’s Pursuit of Freedom

The prolific novelist, Toni Morrison, wrote in her book Beloved, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Ari Groover performing “What’s Love Got To Do With It” as ‘Tina Turner’ in the North American touring production of TINA – The Tina Turner Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Though Morrison was writing about enslaved people escaping from a plantation, her words aptly describe rock ’n’ roll legend Tina Turner’s life journey. During her life, Tina never shied away from sharing her story of trial and triumph. Her autobiography, I Tina was adapted into the 1993 film What’s Love Got to do with It? And now, her story is told on stages around the world in the Tony Award-winning TINA — The Tina Turner Musical.

Written by Katori Hall and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the musical premiered on London’s West End before transferring to Broadway in 2019. Featuring hits such as “Proud Mary,” “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” “Simply the Best,” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” the musical follows Tina from her modest beginnings in the Jim Crow South to surviving an abusive marriage and becoming one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. The musical shows how Tina became a living example of reinvention.

Tina, whose given name was Anna Mae Bullock, was born in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1939. Her parents moved the family to Nutbush when she was a child, but their toxic relationship kept Tina and her sisters bouncing between their parents and grandparents during childhood. When the couple split, and Tina’s mother Zelma Currie moved to St. Louis, she left Tina with her maternal grandmother. That decision strained their relationship for the rest of their lives, but Tina found solace in music.

For Roz White, who plays Zelma, Tina is the epitome of bravery. White remembers watching Tina’s “Let’s Stay Together” video on MTV at the age of 14. By then, White knew she had a voice, but hadn’t had a role model for a girl with a deeper sound until Tina’s Private Dancer album came out. From then on, White says her grandmother would ask her to sing Tina’s songs whenever she had friends over to play cards. As White got older, she recognized that the ferocity in Tina’s voice and dance moves was rooted in a deeper story.

Zelma wears a geometric print dress. She's standing in front of a green background.

Roz White as ‘Zelma’ in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022

By the time Tina graduated from high school, she worked cleaning houses and as a nurse’s aide during the day, and sang in clubs at night. In the late 1950s, she met musician and band leader, Ike Turner, who renamed her Tina and helped her secure a recording contract. By 1960, they formed the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and toured the South while releasing Billboard hits. Then, came the 1966 hit “River Deep – Mountain High” and higher hemlines. The single was immensely popular in Europe, and led to Tina gracing the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and to the duo opening up for The Rolling Stones.

This is where her signature moves also caught the eye of little girls around the world. Standing at 5’4” Turner moved her legs when she was dancing like she was running for her life. She shook her body as if possessed by the Holy Spirit, trying to free her of the limited expectations placed on Black women from the South at that time.

Tina’s shimmy and high kicks also became her ticket to freedom. She had followed in her mother’s footsteps and was in an abusive marriage with Ike. Glamorous gowns and glitter disguised the fact that she was fighting for her life behind-the-scenes. In 1976, with four boys, mounting legal fees and pennies to her name, Tina left her marriage to Ike.

Just two years after the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which allowed women to have credit cards, loans and mortgages without a husband or male relative to co-sign, Tina struck out on her own. It was also at a time when divorce was still taboo and when women over the age of 35 were regarded as past their prime.

Ari Groover as ‘Tina Turner’ in TINA – The Tina Turner Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

Tina set out to prove them all wrong. For the next seven years, she scraped to make ends meet, performing in clubs, festivals and lounges in the U.S. and Europe. In her mid-40s, she released her fourth solo album, Private Dancer, donning leather corsets, fish net tights, a blonde wig and red lipstick. This was a new Tina. Turner won three Grammy Awards from Private Dancer, including Record of the Year for “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”

She spent the better part of the next decade selling out arenas as well as rebuilding her life and her finances after the fallout of her marriage to Ike. However, she also found love along the way — both within herself and with her husband, record label executive Erwin Bach. The two met while Turner was on tour in Europe and lived in Switzerland for most of their relationship. The two were together until she passed on May 23, 2023.

Tina’s Turner’s illustrious career is marked by 12 Grammy Awards, a sold out 50th anniversary world tour, and an induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 2021 at the age of 81. However, Tina’s true success was ownership of her freed self. She found a pathway to inner peace through Buddhism and meditation; a unique sense of style; a new sound, and the courage to stand on her own. She was never defeated by tragedy, even when she couldn’t see a way out.

“She’s someone who society thought would have a minimal future,” White says. Instead, “she surpassed everything projected on her by her family and the world. The world says a little girl from Nutbush can’t sell out a stadium in Brazil, but she did.”

TINA — The Tina Turner Musical
Oct 18 – 28 • Buell Theatre