Interview with Choir Boy star Jeremy Pope

Jeremy Pope

The first official Broadway opening of 2019 took place at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre last night as Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway premiere of Choir Boy was met with rave reviews and rapturous applause, as the curtain fell. Penned by Tarell Alvin McCraney - best known as the Oscar-winning writer behind "Moonlight" - Choir Boy also centers on a young, African American gay man, but unlike "Moonlight," the setting is a more prestigious one... the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. What the two works do have in common, however, is the fact that they are providing a long overdue and sadly all-too lonely voice for African American homosexuals on a mainstream platform. The play is equally brimming in heart and heartache, as we are swept along over the course of 95 minutes on our protagonist Pharus' journey through trials and tribulations to graduation.

Reprising the role of Pharus from the 2013 off-Broadway premiere at New York City Center is the astonishingly talented Jeremy Pope, who marks his Broadway debut with Choir Boy and is also scheduled to star as Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations in Ain't Too Proud from February 28, 2019 at the Imperial Theatre. Starring in two Broadway shows in the same season is a mean feat for any stage actor, but taking on leading roles in two consecutive Broadway shows is surely reserved for la crème de la crème of the triple-threat talent pool.

We recently caught up with Jeremy to talk all things Choir Boy and Ain't Too Proud, as well as dealing with high school bullies and the importance of an African-American voice for gay narratives in the mainstream media...

Jeremy Pope & Chuck Cooper in Choir Boy
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)

What’s are the most exciting and most challenging aspects of making your Broadway debut with Choir Boy and Ain’t Too Proud – two shows in one season?

Obviously I couldn’t have dreamt it any better than to be doing two shows and they are incredibly special shows to me. I think the most challenging thing is to kinda just stay in the moment. It’s so easy to get so far ahead of myself and think: “What is my schedule?” and “Where do I need to be?” But I do want to give merit to the fact that it is my Broadway debut and it’s one of those things that young J. Pope was looking forward to. While I’m so excited to get started with The Temptations, I’m just trying to enjoy the time I have with my [Choir Boy] cast at every show, grabbing coffee or lunch in between shows, and celebrating the fact that we, as a bunch of young, black men, are all making our Broadway debuts in such a special piece that was my first job back in 2013. So, it is a full circle moment.

Will you have any free time at all between the end of Choir Boy and the start of Ain’t Too Proud?

That’s a negative (Laughs). The day that I leave Choir Boy, the next day I begin the previews for Ain’t Too Proud, so there is no break, as of now. But hopefully, after my six months, I’ll take a much-needed vacation to somewhere warm.

It’s always good to have a vacation booked to look forward to! And what can we look forward to in Ain’t Too Proud?

In Ain’t Too Proud, we’re jumping back to the ‘60s and taking you back to The Temptations and all their greatest hits. But we’re also talking about why they were the best R&B group and why there is only one original Temptation left standing. You get some background information on their highs and their lows and what you loved so much about The Temptations.

Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, Jawan M. Jackson, James Harkness & Derrick Baskin
in Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of The Temptations
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)

As for Choir Boy, when you were doing the play at New York City Center back in the summer of 2013, did you anticipate it moving to Broadway at some point or did this come as a surprise to you?

I didn’t anticipate it. We were doing the show in a smaller off-Broadway house that seated a little over a hundred people and I was also new to the biz. I honestly was just thinking: “We’re doing a show and rent is paid.” I had been auditioning for so long, trying to get a job to proclaim to my parents that “I’m a working actor!” And Choir Boy was that. The word of mouth from the audience was so powerful and so special and so moving, but it wasn’t on my radar that we would take it to Broadway. I got the call a little over a year ago and I was super excited for Tarell [Alvin McCraney] and at the opportunity. But I asked myself if I had outgrown the role and would I be interested in doing the role. But we did a workshop with some of the fellas and I fell back in love with the piece immediately. It was like second nature. It’s also kinda cool to be able to re-visit a part like that five years later. I feel I’ve grown so much as an individual and I feel I’m aware of how special the story is and it isn’t every day that you get to see this many young, black artists telling such a powerful, intricate story.

As you mentioned earlier, you’re over five years older now. In what ways do you feel that’s been beneficial in playing Pharus again?

For me what’s been beneficial is that the foundation has been set. I know what the play is and I know what the scenes are, but I’m able to grow from that. I’m able to dig in deeper and it’s exciting because there’s nothing like being comfortable and situated in your material because you’re able to try things. You can find nuances in the conversations and the dialogues that are set out. Tarell, in the last five years, has now become Head of the Playwright Division at the Yale School of Drama. He’s had to run an institution himself and to circle back to a play he wrote about an institution has informed him. I do believe that him knowing me and my work, he was able to change a lot in the script from the 2013 version. He made a lot of themes clearer. He came in with an understanding. That was kinda beautiful that we were both able to hold each other’s hands and dive in and dig deeper into it.

John Clay III & Jeremy Pope in Choir Boy
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Tarell has done such ground-breaking work with “Moonlight” and Choir Boy, but there doesn’t seem to be that many African American stories with a gay theme in mainstream Hollywood or on Broadway. Would you agree and if so, why do you think that is?

I agree. I think what’s challenging is that it’s rare that we get to hear and see the black narrative. Being a black artist, the black community is so broken. There’s a lot of questions that we don’t have answers to. To be honest, as you see in Choir Boy, sometimes it can be messy. It’s hard enough to be a black man out there. For us, it’s kinda easier to supress that and keep our heads forward and not deal with the complicated. But it is so refreshing to have these stories that come around once in a blue moon. If we can grab hold of that and get as many people as we can to see them and to feel and witness what it is that a lot of us go through. Every night at the stage door, there’s a handful of people that are kinda speechless and don’t really have words because it’s the first time they’ve seen themselves being represented in a mainstream way, like you said in Hollywood or on a Broadway stage. Nothing about it feels commercial. Why? Because we don’t see it enough. So, why would it be commercial? You know what I mean? If we can bring this to the forefront and get as many people – young, old, black, white, polka dot, whatever – to see it, then my goal and hope is for people to leave with a sense of understanding and maybe a little more compassion for one another.

How were your own school experiences if you compare them to Pharus’s in Choir Boy?

Well, I didn’t go to an all-male prep school, but I did go to a hugely populated high school and I remember being taunted. It was the first time I had started to use my singing voice and put that out there and I got serious about the theatre. People would call me names and talk about me behind my back because I was “soft” to them. It was hard to hear that and go through that as a young adult about to cross that threshold into manhood. So, I can definitely tap into that and understand what it feels like to be put down because of that or be talked about in that way. I also believe that gave me confidence and strength because there was a moment when I checked in with myself  and said: “Not everyone is going to be for you, J. You gotta look at the bigger picture and what makes you happy.” I feel that’s relatable to Pharus and what he’s going through. He’s really trying to cross that threshold and get to Senior Year and graduate. He hopes that he gets to sing the lead in this prestigious choir and unfortunately, it’s a “No” for Pharus and that’s reality. It’s not always a happy ending, but I do believe, at the end of the play, that Pharus is going to be OK and he’s going to keep striding forward.

So, in summary, what can audiences expect from a trip to see Choir Boy?

You’re going to hear some amazing singing and see some amazing dancing. You’re going to witness the amazing words and language written by the masterful Tarell Alvin McCraney. It is a play not to be missed, so come and celebrate this special piece with us, if you’re in New York City, and I can’t wait to see you all there!

Nicholas L. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt & John Clay III in Choir Boy
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Choir Boy Tickets are available now for performances through to February 17, 2019.