DEBUT OF THE MONTH: Phillip Boykin of THE GERSHWIN'S PORGY AND BESS
Actor Phillip Boykin is currently making his Broadway debut in the role of 'Crown' in The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess opposite co-stars Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier. The production opened on January 12th at the Richard Rodger's Theatre. The classic story by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward is set in Charleston's fabled Catfish Row, where the beautiful Bess struggles to break free from her scandalous past, and the only one who can rescue her is the crippled but courageous Porgy. Threatened by her formidable former lover Crown, and the seductive enticements of the colorful troublemaker Sporting Life, Porgy and Bess' relationship evolves into a deep romance that triumphs as one of theater's most exhilarating love stories.
Boykin originated the role of Crown in the production's sold-out world premiere engagement at Boston's American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.). With a creative team which includes Tony-nominated director Diane Paulus (Hair), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog), and two-time Obie Award-winning composer Diedre L. Murray (Running Man), the show marks the first time that George and Ira Gershwin's legendary masterpiece has returned to the Broadway stage in more than 35 years.
Boykin is no stranger to 'Porgy and Bess'. He has performed in the roles of 'Crown' and 'Jim' in Germany, Portugal, Japan and most recently Australia and New Zealand. He has also performed on international tours with the “Golden Gospel Singers” and the “Harlem Gospel Singers” and was a featured soloist with the “Spiritual Singers of Harlem”. He was nominated for a National Broadway Theatre Award for his performance as 'Joe' in the National tour of 'Show Boat'. His opera credits include the role of Inspector Watts in Stephen and Scott Schwartz's Séance On A Wet Afternoon and the role of Crown in the New York City Opera's production of Porgy and Bess.
In a recent chat with BWW, Boykin shared his thoughts on what it was like to finally appear on the Broadway stage in a play that has literally been a part of his life since the time he was a little boy growing up in West Greenville, South Carolina.
Let's start at the beginning. I understand that you are one of ten children in your family and I read in an interview where you said 'As a little boy, I did all my singing and performing just to see my mother smile." Was it hard to grab your mother's attention among so many siblings?
Yes, I have six brothers, three sisters, and none of them do anything in the arts or sing or act or anything like that. Out of all ten children, I'm the only one that graduated from high school and of course, the only who went on to college. I think some of my brothers and sisters may have a GED that they got through a night school program. And all of them have been in trouble with the law at some point or another and I would see how sad it made my mom. So I made up in my mind that I wanted to do something to make her smile so I started singing. I loved to see her face just light up when I told her 'Mama, I'm going to Europe with the North Carolina School of the Arts Orchestra' and then she would tell people that 'Oh yes, Phillip's going over to Europe and he's going to be singing with the orgestras', which she pronounced 'orgestra' with a 'g' in it. I would chuckle but that just made me so happy!
That's wonderful. And I understand as a boy, you used to listen to an old recording of 'Porgy and Bess'.
Oh yes. My uncle had the album of the High Performance of Porgy and Bess with William Warfield and Leontyne Price on the cover and I began to sing after listening to that album. I wanted to be a singer. Recently, I was interviewed for a community outreach program and I told them that I believed it was important for kids to see people like themselves, like on that album cover or on the stage or anywhere that they can identify with someone, as I identified with Warfield and Price. I played that record over and over and tried to sing the songs and all of that. That's how it started and it's quite amazing that I'm making my Broadway debut in that same show.
Talk about fate!
Yes it's outrageous. One of my first voice teachers I ever had encouraged me to learn 'Plenty of Nothing' and 'There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon' and all the songs from Porgy and Bess and I learned them and here I am!
And you've been in many other productions of the show as well.
Oh yes. I've performed in either the ensemble or in the role of Jake, Crown, I've understudied as Porgy and I've played Nelson and Jim, the smaller roles in the opera. I've been in some role in Porgy and Bess since 1996.
And how did you come to Diane Paulus' production in Boston?