November 28, 1994 12:00 PM

WHEN LONETTE MCKEE FIRST Appears onstage in Show Boat, the classic Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical now in acclaimed revival on Broadway, her silken golden gown shines in the spotlights. But it is her voice—a “crushed blue velvet alto,” one reviewer called it—that truly dazzles the packed houses at the Gershwin Theater. And it is her portrayal of Julie, the mixed-race singer whose attempts to pass for white in 1880s Mississippi lead to tragedy, that helps lend the show its emotional weight. “I think she’s just struggling to survive,” McKee says of Julie, whose descent into despair is spurred by racism. “In that sense, I’m certainly doing the same.”

Little wonder that McKee, 39, feels a connection to her character. Of mixedrace ancestry herself, she has seen her star rise and fall for more than 20 years because of racial stereotyping. Often, she says, Hollywood producers have told her that she was “too exotic” for roles—including Kim Basinger’s in 9½ Weeks. That some of these ultimately went to white actresses has taxed the faith of the naturally optimistic actress. And that’s not the worst of it. “For a couple of films,” McKee says, “they said, ‘You’re not black enough.’ It feels horrible, because I consider myself a black woman.”

Ironically, McKee was raised to believe that mixed was beautiful. “My mother used to tell me, ‘You have the best of both worlds,’ ” says McKee, whose father, late Detroit autoworker Lonnie McKee, was black and whose mother, Dorothy, 69, is white. “She felt that the mixture of this handsome black man and this pretty white woman would result in beautiful children and it would be wonderful for us.”

That the opposite was true soon became clear to McKee, who says that throughout her childhood in a poor Detroit neighborhood, she was ostracized by both whites and blacks. “I just didn’t fit in,” she says. At home, though, McKee heard only encouragement from her mother, who supported her early interest in music. A piano whiz at 6, McKee, the second of three daughters, was singing in nightclubs in her early teens and at 14 recorded a single that got local radio play in 1969. The following year she dropped out of high school and—with the blessing of her mother, who pawned her wedding ring to pay the fare—joined her older sister Kathy in Los Angeles. There she worked in various jobs, including a summer stint as a secretary for Bill Cosby, before making her TV debut as one of the Soul Sisters dancers on The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters in 1972. When she was asked to darken her complexion with makeup, “I was too young to know not to do it,” she says.

Four years later, McKee earned raves as the lead singer of a Supremes-style vocal group in the film Sparkle. Influential movie critic Pauline Kael wrote that McKee conveyed the “sexual brazenness” of a young Susan Hayward or Ava Gardner. Yet the predicted stardom never materialized, and McKee spent the next decade performing mostly character roles in films and onstage. However, her talent did not go unrecognized, and Spike Lee cast her in 1991’s Jungle Fever and 92’s Malcolm X. “She’s a great actress,” he says. “It amazed me that she wasn’t working more.”

“There just weren’t any roles for women who looked like me,” says McKee, who hasn’t made a film since Malcolm X. Divorced in 1990 from New York City youth counselor Leo Compton, whom she’d married in 1983, McKee struggled during the ensuing career lull to support herself. She and musician boyfriend Bryant McNeil, 31, whom she met during a recording session in 1990, found an apartment in a drug-infested section of Brooklyn where, she says, the sound of gunfire in the streets kept her up at night. “There were times when I couldn’t afford to eat,” she says. “I couldn’t pay my rent.”

In despair and “not knowing how we were going to make it next month or next week,” McKee found solace in the supportive McNeil. “He’s a very spiritual man,” she says. “He just kept saying, ‘Baby, there’s a purpose for this. You have something to offer. You’re blessed, and it’s going to be all right.’ ”

The couple’s faith was rewarded last year, when McKee’s Show Boat finally came in. “I knew she’d be perfect [as Julie],” says director Harold (Cabaret) Prince. “She has a gorgeous voice and enormous vulnerability.” Since Show Boat’s, success—and thanks, too, to royalties from her 1992 album Natural Love—she and McNeil have moved to Manhattan, where they are renovating a newly purchased East Side town house. Suddenly much in demand, McKee is fielding offers from film producers and, between performances, finds time to help manage McNeil’s fledging rock group, Jim Crow—”they’re going to be major that,” she says—and launch their own Flat Daddy Records label. At the same time she is busy on a novel, Queen of the Birds. The title is taken from her passion for rescuing sick and injured birds, nursing them back to health and releasing them. “It’s kind of the story of my life,” McKee says of the book. “I’ve struggled. But these hardships have made me stronger and more spiritual. If you’re black in this business, you know there’s no one magic role. It’s to be one challenge after the next.” She adds with a smile, “I know it will be all right.”


LORNA GRISBY in New York City

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