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Jeremy Pope Makes His Broadway Début Twice This Season
It takes a special kind of star to make Broadway producers shift their schedules around—which is exactly what Jeremy Pope is. This week, he’ll have exactly three days between his final performance of his Broadway début in Moonlight author Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy and his first preview in the new Temptations musical Ain’t Too Proud. He readily admits that when the projects, both of which he’s been attached to for years, started coming together, he first thought was, “There’s no world in which it works out,” and he was resigned to having to choose between them. But the producers for both wanted him badly enough that they got together to make it happen, with Manhattan Theatre Club shifting Choir Boy two weeks earlier to give Pope time off before starting Ain’t Too Proud—until Choir Boy proved so successful that its run was extended, leading to the crazy schedule he now finds himself in the middle of. “I’m sure I owe somebody mad, mad love for that,” he laughs. “I think both projects really, really wanted it to work out. They wanted me there, but I also think they wanted me to be able to be that young black artist who did two shows in one season. I think that was part of the narrative for them.”
That “narrative” is one reflective of the increasingly diverse representation on Broadway, where Pope is not only a black actor leading two major productions this season but one whose roles are emphatically about the black experience. In Choir Boy, he is reprising his role of Pharus, an effeminate gay teenager at an all-black prep school who has to transcend bullying and homophobia as he attempts to lead the celebrated student choir, which he originated in the play’s Off Broadway premiere in 2013. In the jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud, he stars as Eddie Kendricks one of the co-founders of the celebrated Motown group the Temptations.
Two Broadway shows in one season would be a coup for any young actor, but Pope is quick to emphasize that the experience is so much more meaningful given the import of the projects. “I thought I was going to be Simba in The Lion King when I came to New York because that was all there was. To be leading these shows and talking about real shit, I don’t ever want to forget this feeling,” he says. ”It’s just a reminder this is what I was after. It’s another affirmation to keep fighting the fight. For my narrative and my gift and what I want to do, which is telling important stories, they got to speak to me. I think it starts there in order for me to grab a hold of it and want to do the work eight days a week because it’s not like a movie where you can just hop in, do the scene once, and be like, ‘That’s a wrap.’ This shit is hard. I’m exhausted.”
It’s clear that for Pope, all the exhaustion has been worth it. The very first thing he says about Pharus, who is unabashedly himself even in the face of cruel violence, is that the “role has a special place in my heart,” having been his first job in New York City and one that has helped shaped the projects he has looked for and the artist he has become ever since. Now twenty-six, Pope remembers first encountering Choir Boy as a nineteen-year-old, fresh out of high school and unsure of the career he wanted. “To be honest I was extremely terrified when I was going in for the project,” he recalls. “The breakdown describes this effeminate, ambitious character and I’m reading the scenes and I’m like, ‘Okay I just recently graduated high school, so I know what the idea of trying to cross that finish line feels like,’ but real talk for your first project to be something that you have to commit to being so vulnerable to, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that. I was like, ‘I’m putting my whole self out there,’ and that was scary.”
The original run of Choir Boy opened at MTC’s Off Broadway space to ecstatic reviews, many of them singling out Pope’s vivid and dynamic performance, and Pope says he quickly realized how invaluable the story—as with Moonlight, focusing on the rarely-seen gay black man—was for audiences. “I was very, very scared because I knew how vulnerable I was being,” he recalls. “I felt like playing Pharus in a strange way didn’t really feel like acting. In a lot of the scenes, the way in which Pharus was navigating is a defense mechanism—he has to become larger than life. In those moments, Jeremy had to become larger than life in order to be present on stage because of how fearful I was of being that vulnerable, of speaking from a real place, showing my body, all the things that were being asked of me. I feel like that was phase one of my introduction to this career that I’ve chosen to do, but now I embrace that. I love being vulnerable because I know what it can do for the audience.”
When Choir Boy’s Broadway transfer was announced—McCraney had since won an Oscar for his work on Moonlight and would also be making his Broadway début—Pope admits that there was an initial question about whether he would even want to be involved. “It was like, ‘Does the character still live in you?’” he relates. “But we did a workshop last year where we just read the script and Pharus just came alive. When I last did it in 2013, it was always one of those roles where it didn’t really feel like it was finished when I did my last performance.” The play’s themes of homophobia and racism are, as Pope says, “still very active,” and given MTC’s large subscriber base, it would be reaching new audiences who perhaps weren’t already inclined to seek it out. “We’re really rocking some people’s worlds. We’re talking about religion and spirituals and sexuality and homophobia,” he says. “I think that is the true theater experience, to rock you and shake you and make you go back to yourself and ask, ‘What can I do? What can I change?’ I think proposing and putting that out there for the black community, but also for the white community and for anyone, it’s just that what this world needs right now is more love, more empathy. I get that we may not all agree with the way we walk our walk and talk our talk, but there is something to be said about loving and respecting people and giving them space and finding the right spaces for individuals who are different.”
Growing up in Orlando, Pope always knew that he stood out. He was raised singing in the church choir, but says he had plans of becoming a pop star, “the next Chris Brown.” He joined his high school’s theater program for the opportunity to work on his voice and began applying to conservatories with the goal of getting to New York as soon as possible. “Once I got to New York and the grind and the struggle were very real is when I started taking it very, very seriously,” he recalls. Now revisiting the first role of his career, Pope says the five years in between, which he spent auditioning for numerous projects that he admits didn’t give him the opportunity to “put my heart out there and be vulnerable and talk about some real shit,” have put Choir Boy into a new, even more precious light. “The one thing that really stands out to me this go-around is I’m aware of how important the story is, but also I’m aware of how important it is for representation and people seeing their stories and their narratives told,” he says. “I was aware of that and I was just excited that we were getting another opportunity to shed light on the misunderstood. It’s just so rare that your lead of a show is a black queer man. I knew how important that was and I knew how rare that was and how much healing it was going to provide for young, old, black men, gay men out there that needed to just feel and know that they’re heard and that someone is looking after them.”
That concern about finding projects that ask more of himself and the audience is the reason he initially turned down Ain’t Too Proud multiple times. “All they were saying was, ‘Temptations musical,’ and I was like, ‘That for me is not going to do it,’” he admits. “I feel like a lot of these musicals become machines where you just need to go in and it’s not about what you can do to a role or how you can tell the narrative, it’s just about going in, hitting the step, and then making money.” However, when he finally had the chance to read the script by Dominique Morisseau—like McCraney, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner—he was struck by its power. “She’s talking about real, real shit,” Pope says. “She’s humanizing these men and talking about these idols that were going through some real stuff during the civil rights era.” When he entered the audition room and was immediately told that they asked him in on the strength of his performance in Choir Boy, it felt like fate.
With his time in his first Broadway play over and mere days before he gets on stage in his first Broadway musical. Pope says he is taking full advantage of the moment, which he knows he will never experience again. “To be honest, it’s been super cool because I know I’m going to blink and it’s going to be over,” he says. “It’s going to be like, ‘Remember when you did two shows?’” Coming full circle with Choir Boy and opening a new chapter in his career with Ain’t Too Proud, Pope also recognizes how fortunate he is to be having this breakout season with two shows that are so close to his heart. “It’s just another opportunity where I get to talk about beautiful black men and that is pretty cool,” he explains. “I’m at a loss for words when I think about how much black is on Broadway this season and how I’m a part of two of the major productions that are out there. I guess I’m creating a path or creating little peepholes for the young J. Pope out there, the young actor who’s like, ‘I think there’s room for me, I think there’s space for me.’”
Ain’t Too Proud begins previews on Thursday at the Imperial Theatre, New York.