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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: James Brown III of 'The Color Purple'

As an Ivy League-bound champion athlete, James Brown III was the type of student who's voted most likely to succeed. His high school classmates would have pegged his success to sports or medicine, since they knew him as a track star and wannabe neurosurgeon. Though he's given up both those pursuits, he has attained the success he seemed destined for in the field he chose instead: dance.

At age 25, James has already performed in three of the biggest blockbusters of the past decade—Wicked, The Producers and The Lion King—and is now in one of this season's musical hits, The Color Purple. He's made his movie debut, appeared on one of television's most buzzed-about programs (Chappelle's Show) and worked with such A-listers as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Usher, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Sondheim and Nathan Lane. Since coming to New York five years ago (to do psychology research!), he's been employed nonstop as a dancer. Should we believe him when he says "There are tons of shows I haven't gotten"?

When James arrived in New York in June 2001, he was a psychology major with med-school aspirations who had just completed his junior year at Brown University. He had earned a research grant to study the so-called Adonis complex, an obsession with having the "perfect body" that drives men to diet and work out excessively. A Brown professor, Katharine Phillips, had co-written a book about the disorder, and James wanted to study it specifically among male dancers. To get to know potential subjects, he attended dance classes and auditions. One of the first auditions he went to was for the all-star concerts marking Michael Jackson's 30 years as a solo artist. He was hired—and thus, for his first professional gig, he danced to "Beat It" alongside Jackson himself; behind Whitney Houston, Usher and Mya in an opening number; and with chart-topping divas Destiny's Child and Missy Elliott on their hits "Bootylicious" and "Get Ur Freak On," respectively.

The producer and choreographer of the Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Celebration—held at Madison Square Garden in late summer 2001 and televised that November on CBS—also hired James to dance in Usher's and Mya's concerts at the Garden and for R&B singer Deborah Cox's nationwide tour. Some fellow dancers in the Jackson show told him about auditions for the first national tour of The Lion King, and by spring 2002 he was its dance captain and understudy for a role he had long desired, Simba. His future as a doctor had been vanquished.

"Lion King was, like, my favorite musical ever," says James. "I loved the movie, and I saw the show when it first opened and I was: 'Oh, God, this is the best thing I've ever seen in my whole life!' I always wanted to be Simba."

He got to play his dream role in The Lion King during his two years with the tour, but he'd have an even greater emotional attachment to a show in the future—now the present. "I think all of us in The Color Purple to a certain extent have a very close relationship with the story, only because it's a large part of our history, where we've come from, and there's a positive outcome," James says. "And it's a recognized movie and book, not just recognized by African-Americans but cross-culturally.

"Nothing against the other shows I've done, because I have felt a part of them, but I can't really say that I've lived it or my family has lived it," he continues. "This show is really about the African-American experience. Just to be able to show the negatives of our culture as well as the positives, but to show that even the antagonist is redeemed in the end, and to show that weak, dependent Celie is strengthened by the end, is an amazing feeling."

In addition to singing and dancing in the Purple ensemble, James plays Bobby, a plumber who flirts with Celie in a brief yet heartwarming scene in Act 2. He's also understudying Harpo, and has his eye on the role should Brandon Victor Dixon leave the Broadway cast or a road company be formed (likely but not yet definite). James performed with the Color Purple cast when Oprah Winfrey devoted an episode of her TV chatfest to the show, which she is producing. She's already been to see it three times. "We've had some pretty good interaction with her," James reports. "It's been real producer-actor interaction, not just figurehead. It's all been supportive and heartfelt. She's very connected to the project, having been in the movie and really having the movie launch her career. Her favorite thing to say is 'All things Purple are divine,' and that the story is divine and connected to God and has a message for anyone who sees it."

James had been so keen on The Color Purple, he went down to Atlanta to see the musical during its run at ALLIANCE THEATRE in fall 2004. At the time, he had just completed The Frogs on Broadway (he was dance captain) and was about to join The Producers on tour. Both of those shows were directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, who also gave him a part in the Producers movie—but, alas, not the speaking part he had had on stage. Tracy Morgan, formerly of Saturday Night Live, got the role of brogue-accented black cop O'Houlihan (who arrests Leo and Max). In the film James performs in "You Never say 'Good Luck' on Opening Night," "Prisoners of Love" and, perhaps most prominently, "King of Broadway"—which was cut from theatrical release but will be on the DVD.

He was in the Producers tour for five months, then went straight into the Broadway company of Wicked, which he did for much of last year. In 2005 he also filmed an episode of Chappelle's Show that spoofed both the Michael Jackson trial and Jackson's "Thriller" video (he played a "Thriller" ghoul), and he served as a judge at the Miss America teen pageant. Now that he's in his fifth musical in as many years, James has decided "it was God's plan for me to be here, and the whole time I think I was just fighting it. I definitely have a passion for psychology and medicine, but when there's another can't run away."

He's still hoping to complete his psychology degree, at Columbia. The last five years could count as fieldwork. "I've had opportunities to use what I've learned in psychology," James says. "You're on the road for months and months at a time, it just creates a lot mentally. I have dealt with friends who are dealing with depression or bipolar, with cast members who have mood disorders, so it's actually come in handy to be able to speak to them and know the things to say or have an idea of what they're feeling. Especially in Lion King, being a part of management [as dance captain], I was able to help management understand the situations some of the actors were going through."

In high school, James was so intent on studying psychology and neurosurgery that he didn't dream of a performing career even though he majored in theater after his public school in Dana Point, Calif., opened a performing arts academy, the South Orange County School of the Arts. His physician ambitions had been stoked partly by working in hospitals where his mother was a cardiovascular nurse. James never took dance classes growing up, but he performed in school musicals and dance shows. His primary extracurricular activity, however, was track: He specialized in hurdles, also ran relays and cross-country, and was recognized as one of the top five track athletes in California, a highly competitive state for sports. From age 14 to 17 he was ranked third in the nation in the 55-, 100- and 110-meter hurdles. Brown also played free safety and wide receiver on the football team, and was a competitive gymnast for seven years before high school.

He was recruited by several Division I colleges with nationally ranked sports programs. "I still wanted to run in college," he says, "but at that point I'd been running for so long I wanted to focus on school, which is why I decided to go to more of an academic school." It was only after he got to Brown that he first started training seriously as a dancer—though, like his subsequent career, it happened almost as a fluke. "My freshman year at Brown, our track coach was really encouraging the team to get involved in something else physical that would kind of counterbalance the strenuous schedule we had at track." So James Headed over to the dance department. During his years at Brown, he belonged to two university dance troupes—one specializing in modern, the other in West African dance.

He's now doing that kind of dance every night for the 15 or so super-energetic minutes of "African Homeland," the number that opens the second act of The Color Purple. "It's one of the most amazing moments in theater, because it's very unlike anything else that's on Broadway now, probably even that's ever been," James says. "The African number is fulfilling artistically: We're able to tell a story and still be doing amazing dance steps that's not just fluff, not just for entertainment. It's moving the story along, and it has a lot of depth to it."

While he wasn't as emotionally invested in previous shows as he is with Color Purple, there were other reasons (besides a paycheck) that he wanted to be in them. "There were a lot of 'perks' in doing The Frogs, which is why I wanted to be a part of that show: working with Nathan Lane, with Susan Stroman, with Sondheim, who's like a living legend—one of the very few living legends we have as far as musical composing is concerned—working at Lincoln Center. And then The Producers was just one of the most successful shows on Broadway, 12 Tonys. And I got a lot of tapping." Wicked gave him the opportunity to dance for another choreographer, with a style quite different from Susan Stroman's. "I like the fact that Wayne Cilento's not the typical Broadway choreographer," James states. "Stro is very traditional musical theater: She has the big tap number, the beautiful pictures, the beautiful lines, a lot of ballet in it. Wayne is a little bit more commercial, more contemporary jazz. It's obscure lines, and a little bit more organic. It was nice to go from one side of the spectrum to another with Wicked."

James has studied at Alvin Ailey, but now he's more focused on acting and singing classes than dance lessons. "I definitely want to transition into TV and film, and I want to be playing more roles on Broadway," he says. "I think the competitor in me is always wanting more."

When he was at Brown, James trained simultaneously as a dancer and a runner, but he can't do that anymore now that one is his livelihood. "My body never looked like a dancer while I was running," he explains. "I was built for speed. All of my muscles were tight and shorter, and I was very compact. My arms and legs never looked straight or long. Once I stopped running, I had to take a lot of ballet and work hard to change my body. I had a lot of the facility, but the lines weren't as clean as they could have been."

He does retain some of what he learned on the track. "Having run and competed so heavily has helped me to know how to listen to my body, and know when I need to slow down or take care of it better, and I think it's also given me a little bit more strength to deal with the eight shows a week.

"The biggest thing," he adds, "is going into an audition and treating it like it's a competition. In track you learn that you're very much competing against yourself, and how hard you work in practice is going to show when you get on the line. You can't really affect the other competitors in the race; you're only in control of what you do. It's very much the same thing when you're auditioning for a show. A lot of times you aren't directly competing against the next person; what you're competing against is if you personally fit what they're looking for, and that's all you can change. You can show what you have and what reason you should be there. It's given me an edge to love auditioning, and you have to love it to a certain extent to be successful. If you go on hating it, it's going to show. The more relaxed you can be, the better you can perform."

Well, now we know at least one secret of his success.

James is on the ground in the photo of the "African Homeland" dance in The Color Purple [photo by Paul Kolnik]. 

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