BWW Interview: J Bernard Calloway Of MEMPHIS
J. Bernard Calloway is currently making his Broadway debut in Memphis as "Delray", a role which he originated while the show was still running at La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle 5th Ave Theater. His face and name may still be unknown to some, but that is soon to change. As "Delray", Calloway lights up the stage, bringing a mix of both humor and realism to the show while also doing his part to bring down the house each night with his outstanding vocals.
BWW: So this is your Broadway debut, correct?
Calloway: Yes! Yes it is.
Tell me a little bit about what this experience has been like for you; when I was at the show there was an overwhelming standing ovation. I can't imagine how good that must feel.
Calloway: Well, that first night, not the previews, but that opening night, when everything was official, that's when it hit me. That standing ovation you were a part of. It was like, wow, I'm on Broadway, and this is my debut in a role I originated. And I got chills, it was like... I hadn't felt that feeling since I played football in college. I don't know if you've been to a football game before, when all those people are screaming and you score a touchdown and they all go wild for you, it shakes your being. It shakes you up. The same thing happened that night, I was like, wow, this is what it is going to be like. Because you know, we've been working on Memphis since 2003. And for Chad (Kimball), Montego (Glover), and others, they have all been on Broadway before in some shape or fashion. But for me, it was like, wow, this is what this is supposed to be like, this is it. This is all the hard work paying off, and it's here in New York on the Great White Way. It was really unbelievable.
It was amazing to be in the audience and feel that burst of energy and enthusiasm for the show. It was downright touching.
Calloway: (Laughs) Well, this is a night in-night out thing now, and I am not boasting! I'm not trying to get a big head about it but I've never been in a show where every night people get up on their feet, singing with you, cheering you on. You go out and you sign autographs and you meet with the fans, and people are crying! People are there who are seeing a Broadway show for the first time and they are just elated by what they have seen. I can't ask for anything more than that. I feel like I've done my job.
So you've been working on this part, as you mentioned, for quite a while. How does it feel to make your Broadway debut in a role you originated?
Calloway: You know, that goes to show you what kind of loyalty Joe DiPietro and David Bryan have; when you collaborate with people like that who have the policy of "if it ain't broke don't fix it', that type of mantra, then you are lucky. People usually look for the money, they want to make sure the seats are filled so they bring in the big stars when they get onto Broadway, but with this group of people loyalty is prominent. Because I am sure, no, I am positive that if they wanted to get a celebrity for my part they could have. But they kept the people who originated the show- speaking of myself, Montego (Glover), Chad (Kimball), Derrick (Baskin), and James (Monroe Iglehart). To have that type of loyalty in this type of business that can be very cut throat, it means a lot to me. Not having the credits, just a lot of regional credits and believing in the gifts that were given to me, that's all I can ask for. So when the director called me and told me that he couldn't see anyone else playing it but me... oh my god, I melted like butter. Imagine me, a big guy, just about to cry! I was so touched.
What are your thoughts on two white guys from New Jersey writing a show about early African American rhythm and blues music from Memphis?
Calloway: Well, you know, not only black folks know about black folks' history! Them writing this tells you something good about historical knowledge across all fronts. When you are involved in the industry that Joe and David are, you are very particular about particulates. David's a rock and roll guy; worldwide millions of people know his and Joe's work. When you are in an industry like that and you have been doing it for so many years, the details are important to research and keep true, and they did that. They brought in all kinds of information and sources about that time and era, from the war to the music. Just because they are Jewish or white, doesn't mean that they don't know their information. What means the most is that it was important for them to research and know our history in America, and what that entails. A lot of kids these days in this generation have no idea what happened or what went on back then. So to give them this tid-bit about a white disc jockey who was the first to play ‘race music', it's an important story to recreate and tell. Music is about music, not about race. Music is the universal language that brings people together or tears them apart. I mean, Big Mama Thornton originally did "Hound Dog," but then Elvis made it famous. And because he was singing it then everyone listened to it. Joe and David are giving homage back to a part of history and our part in it, "our" meaning the American culture; it reads volumes to me as an African American performer and as an African American man. It helps me to understand my heritage as well.
So was this a story that you were already very familiar with before you got involved in Memphis?
Calloway: Actually, when I got involved with it, not as much. It was a learning lesson. I had no idea who Dewey Phillips was (who the "Huey Calhoun" character is based on), I had no idea that Memphis itself was such a mecca for the music industry and what a turning point it was for the American culture of music. Blues, jazz, and gospel all mixing together to create what we think of as Rock and Roll. It was a lot of things that I didn't know. You grow up hearing about John Coltrane, but you don't know about the process they all went through. When you go into a play like this, and the type of actor I am, you do research. And you learn to understand the world you are portraying and so when it's time for you to go out and execute it on stage you can get a piece of that.
Your character is sort of the foil to the rest of the play. You are the one who really expresses the realities of "society" and the real life worries and obstacles that face a mixed race couple, as opposed to just the romantic notions of "love conquers all." And you are also the only one who discusses the idea of a white man stealing music that is produced and created by black singers- a real issue that took place during this era of music. Do you think that this is an important grounding to have in a show like this?
Calloway: I definitely do. During that time there were so many things that weren't accepted. And we had to go about doing things in a certain way to get the things that we wanted, and by "we", in this case, I mean African Americans. I remember growing up my parents always told me that in order to succeed we have to be ten times better than everybody else, we have to step with caution more so than everyone else, and they faced that, especially during the early 1950s. The thing about Huey is that he is excited about our music, which is really great, but he wants to put it out there by using my sister's voice. And at the same time he wants to have an intimate and personal relationship with her, and I think that that is where the line is drawn. That's when any father or uncle or cousin steps in and says listen, this is my little daughter or cousin or sister and I love her. And we don't know who you are, but we don't want anything dangerous to happen to her. The same goes for Cass Morgan's character, "Mama." She is the other side of the realistic vein that flows through the show. She's from the lower-class white sort of position and I'm from the black side of the whole thing. And she tries to get her son (Huey) to understand that you can't just walk around in public together as a mixed race couple because you are going to endanger your lives. That's the same thing that my character feels about his sister, at that time the stakes were really really high. My character sees that aspect of it all while also seeing the business and musical side of it as well where he knows that with Huey's help the community can get established, and that we can all get our voices and music heard. But there is a way that you have to go about doing it. That's where "She's my sister" comes from. Those stakes are there with any family, but there is a reality for the given circumstances.
Do you believe that the play identifies those issues?
Calloway: Definitely. We are teaching that this was the protocol of what happened back then. That this music had to go through someone else to get it heard, and it felt like it was stolen because we had no rights to it once it was out there. But I think that the show hits on it enough without beating the audience over the head with it, and that you can still enjoy it without it being something that you are being lectured about. You want to also show an audience great music and choreography and relationships. You want everyone to also identify with the story and stuff like that. And people do.
This is very much an ensemble production. How has it been working so closely with the same people?
Calloway: One word, chemistry. It is so important. It's been so great; really we are like a family. You get those crazy cousins and you get those family members you fight with, but at the end of the day you all know that you are a family. We are a team. And in order for the show to work we have to work together. I always use the analogy of Kobe Bryant and Shaquile O'Neil, when they were on the court no one could stop them. Their chemistry was unbreakable. But off-stage, off-court, they probably didn't speak to each other as much. But every day that you go out onto the court, or onto the stage, it all comes together and we allow ourselves to live moment to moment. I'll speak for myself; I allow myself to understand that I was directed to do certain things on stage, but that I am also allowed to live in the part and have my own direction. It lives and breathes every day and we all feed off of one another every night. Like one night I may deliver a line a certain way that is different from how I usually do it and we work so well together that we can all play off of it. Acting is all about reacting. You don't want to go to a show and see someone working; you want to see them as a relatable person in this character. I've only done regional theater, so you do it for six weeks and it's done. But since we have been together for so long you come to know who these people are on stage, and what we come to expect from one another. We have begun to play on stage, to develop the true life and aura of the piece.
That sounds enjoyable; it must be so nice to feel that way.
Calloway: I know, right? And it's true, I mean, I know a lot of people say that but that ensemble... we are truly an ensemble production. The principals don't work well if the ensemble is having an off day. We all feed off one another. If their energy is low then we have to take the stage and make it come alive. Same for them, if they come out after my energy was low they have to take it up to another level. It's a balancing act. Some days we are down and some days we are up, but we find a balance, and we make it work every day and every night.
So what are your future plans? Are you currently working on any other projects or planning on anything that is coming up?
Calloway: Well, right now I am putting together a reel, and I have a publicist now, and I've never had one before! It's great! I want to get some more TV time so I'm working on people getting to know me, both in the Broadway community and beyond, because no one really knows me.
Well they do now! And they will!
Calloway: (Laughs) Hopefully! There are a lot of things that are coming down the pipes that I have to keep on the hush hush, but as far as Memphis is concerned I'm just riding the excitement of it, the experience of it, growing with it. I am learning what Broadway is all about, including the politics of the whole scene, which can be crazy! But it's all part of the business, the show business. So the next thing for me is to continue to create work for myself that I can sink my teeth into and grow with. I do a lot of straight plays, dramatic plays, like The Good Negro at The Public, we were nominated for a Pulitzer for that, and those are my types of projects. So my goal is to continue to have work like that but also get into the film and TV side of things. I just made my first movie, and I've done a lot of TV and commercials. I hope that Memphis will be able to get me into doing that. Get some bigger parts in films and maybe a series regular on something. So watch out for me! (Laughs) I just hope to meet more great people like you and to put myself out there and get everyone to know who I am. That's why I appreciate you speaking with me.
Of course! It was my pleasure to hear you sing and watch you perform. I can't sing or act for you, or if I did it would make you cringe, so really I come out the winner here. And I'm sure this will only be the beginning for you.
Calloway: Thank you, I hope so. It's a beautiful journey.