Interview: Jalen Harris of AIN'T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS at Ottawa's National Arts Centre

Don't miss Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks in Broadway Across Canada's presentation of Ain't Too Proud from December 26th through 31st.

By: Dec. 17, 2023
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I was absolutely delighted to speak with Jalen Harris, who is portraying Eddie Kendricks, a founding member of The Temptations, in Broadway Across Canada’s presentation of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. We spoke about the role, how The Temptations paved the way for bands that came afterwards, echoes of the struggles faced by The Temptations in our society today, and the messages that Jalen hopes audiences will take away from the show. We also talked about the inspiration behind his recently released EP, ManneKin, available to buy and stream online.

(L – R) Harrell Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, E. Clayton Cornelious, Michael Andreaus from the National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Credit: © 2023 Emilio Madrid.
(L – R) Harrell Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis,
E. Clayton Cornelious, Michael Andreaus from the National Touring 
Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Credit: © 2023 Emilio Madrid.

How long have you been on the tour?

I've been in for the long haul – we opened in December 2021 at the Kennedy Center, and we started rehearsing in October 2021, so it's been a two-year journey for me so far.

How much did you know about the life and times of The Temptations before you were offered the role of Eddie Kendricks?

People always tell me “I know you are too young to know anything about The Temps”! But their music is etched into American culture; “My Girl” is played at virtually every American wedding. Anywhere in the world, you can hear The Temptations or Motown in some kind of way. I grew up hearing songs like “My Girl” and “Just My Imagination” – I even sang “Get Ready” at a middle school talent show! But as a kid, I didn't really learn their story until I saw the show for the first time in 2019 on Broadway. I never knew how Paul had died, and it was only once I joined the show that I realized that Otis [Williams] was the last living original Temptation. I also got to hear different stories about where people were in their lives when The Temptations music was out. I even have a direct connection being from Memphis; Martin Luther King died here, and that story is told in the show. It's kind of surreal to walk the streets and breathe the air that these people were breathing and learn their story. So even though I knew the songs, I never really knew their stories, especially Eddie’s.

How hard is it to play a real life character compared with a fictional character, like when you played Simba in The Lion King?

This is my first biographical role and it’s so fulfilling to portray a real person’s story. Simba is such a technical role because there is a certain way you have to portray the character within the archetype of The Lion King. What is challenging about playing a real person is that they have relatives that are still living so, not only do I want to be true to Eddie’s story and his point of view, but also I want to elevate what people know about him on stage. I have had some similar life experiences that relate to Eddie’s that I can bring to the role, but there are also things that I've experienced personally after starting the role, so it has been very spiritual and personal in a way for me. It’s also a little scary too because he's an icon and part of such a legendary and timeless group. The Temptations were trendsetters – Eddie was the fashion guy who would dress them, and I so relate to that and look up to his work ethic. When he went solo, Eddie was the only Temptation to ever chart on the billboard in the top ten, let alone make it to number one, so I felt like these were huge shoes to fill! I wanted to do justice to the role and try to be as close to Eddie as I could, while still being Jalen and bringing who Jalen is to the table. If it weren't for our director, Des McAnuff, our choreographers, Sergio Trujillo and Edgar Godineaux, and our associate director, Brian Harlan Brooks, I would not have been able to get there. They helped me deepen myself into the role and marry who I am as an actor to who I am as a musician, because there's so much I can relate to and understand about The Temptations’ journey from being a musician myself. The role has transformed me as a performer. I feel like I am a stronger singer, a stronger dancer, and a stronger actor now, and I think those things were birthed out of the fact that I was portraying a person who actually lived.

Especially a person who was just such a performer.

Oh yes – he stole hearts every time he opened his mouth!

What are the challenges that come with Eddie’s role, in terms of portraying his mannerisms, singing in falsetto – as you said, he has relatives who may come to see the show, so how do you bring Jalen to the role while trying to mimic Eddie?

It is challenging… we spent six weeks in rehearsal and another two weeks “techking” the show. Even having that amount of time preparing to put it on stage still wasn’t enough to perfect all those things, even though I sing in falsetto naturally and I felt like I had the makings to play Eddie. Our personalities are different, and I feel like that is where the biggest challenge came. I’m a quicker listener and Eddie is a quicker speaker! He believed in justice and what was right, and I think because of that, he came across as a hothead and he was very unapologetic about it. And he was so confident – I have confidence too, but it’s taken me a while to grow to the level of confidence that Eddie had! I remember our director giving us notes after shows and he said, “you're so scared to be upset or to be mean to someone” and I was like, “I know, I'm such a softie at heart!”. But it's also so wonderful, as crazy as it sounds, because with that challenge, it allowed me to pull things from Jalen that I've suppressed. You know, like I can tend to be a hothead, and I can be a person that wants it all to be fair and just for everyone and I want the best for everyone, and I can be the type of person that someone might say is like Eddie, especially when it comes to music and the importance of artistry. And having a team sometimes means that thing go awry and you’re like, how did we get here? And then my Eddie traits start coming out, so I think it was always inside of me and the challenge was just how do I bring this to life and really show his point of view while elevating those mannerisms of his. When I walk out as Eddie onto stage, you know that it's Eddie because his stature was unlike anybody else. Most of them stood at six feet, but I think he was about 6’2” so he owned his space and, although it took me a while to get there, two years later, I feel like I've got it!

Did you end up watching like a lot of videos of Eddie performing live as part of preparation for the role?

I tried to watch every single interview, every single live performance that I could. I remember even watching him perform live on Soul Train with his really big hit, “Keep on Trucking”, and trying to learn other things about his life. Watching him while he was in the group and watching him when he left the group gave me a lot of information on what he would have been like in his younger years, and being able to see his career journey and learn about the things that were important to him just from watching him. There was there was even a time when Eddie and David Ruffin had their own kind of Temptations group going on because the songs were so iconic and when the group split apart it was like “Oh I love it, but I still want to see Dave and Eddie”! So, I really tried to do as much research as I could – also talking to Otis and Smokey Robinson, who we were able to meet with, as well as some of the other Motown legends. Just learning about him and hearing about him from them was a big help to me as well.

Wow, what an experience!

It has been the greatest honour of my life so far.

How much do you think The Temptations helped to change the landscape of the music industry?

At the time so much was going on in the world, similar to how so much is going on in the world right now. With Jim Crow and the ending of segregation and the beginning of integration, I think it was it was crazy to see five Black men becoming superstars and performing in places that you would never imagine they would perform. Otis told us that there were theatres and venues that they went to where there would be a noose hanging on stage, either before they got there or after they left. Hearing gunshots while they’re on their bus being mistaken for the Freedom Riders, with people not realizing it was The Temptations – the people that they spent their money to go see! Imagine feeling like, man I'm on top of the world, but the world still hates me… I think it’s amazing that they were able to overcome that and still release music and stay motivated and determined, despite the struggles they were facing. They were one of the only groups at the time able to bring mixed audiences together and do shows with integrated audiences. That's what I call paving the way, you know, from their aesthetics, their wardrobe and look, the way that the music was orchestrated – how Smokey and Norman Whitfield and a lot of the amazing writers that they worked with, made it so cohesive. It's amazing because their style is one that so many groups that came after them followed, like the Jackson 5, Boyz II Men, New Edition, NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys – The Temptations were the ultimate blueprint for boy bands, that's how I would describe them. And then there is also what was birthed out of that – there is no Michael Jackson without the Jackson 5.

Being Canadian, we sometimes see U.S. politics through a slightly different lens then perhaps how you might; it is distressing to see what feels like regression going on right now, largely because of American politics. How it is for you to see a lot of the progress that was made by The Temptations and other bands kind of running in reverse?

It is disheartening to see how divided we are, although it does feels incredible to be living in a time when the world is hungry for something. And thank goodness I can look up people like The Temptations, and I have direct access to someone who lived through that time who can help guide me in my musical journey and how it relates to the world today, because it's always hard to sort of play the political game in the States because of how divisive it can be. But the very divisiveness that goes on can be mended and healed with the same progress that they were making back then. It all started with the songs, and the message, and the music, and their voices. I think that won't ever change; the power of art is always going to be something that brings people together on all sides of the spectrum of belief and religion and political stance. Although we do see a lot of regression in the United States, I think that there is also a lot of inspiration and there's a lot of a feeling of “get up and go” from the people who are aware of what’s going on and don't want it to go back to what it used to be. That's what’s so special about this show because we reenact difficult scenes from the 60s and 70s and it really does send chills up people’s spines – like you can almost hear a pin drop on some nights. But it's amazing because it leaves people with the transformed way of thinking about this group that they love, maybe not knowing all the things that they went through, so even though there is regression, I think that there is always opposition. And I think that the world is always going to be hungry for a strong message and a strong voice – and not just any voice, but the right voice. I’m grateful that I have The Temptations to look at and study and model myself after, so that I can try to make an impact in my home country, especially because of this divisiveness.

Why do you think The Temps’ music has remained relevant to audiences, with new lineups continuing to be able to tour and sing to new generations of fans to this day?

I don't know if it's melodies, or the lyrics, or their voices… I think it's a combination of all those things. What they did was just so monumental and different and innovative for the time. We hadn't seen anything quite like it – hearing vocal ranges all the way from Eddie to Melvin [Franklin] singing bass so low, and with their dance moves and performance style and charisma, it was just electrifying. I believe their songs have lasted so long because their music is timeless. The composition is standard songs, with R&B and soul vocals put to it and you can even hear the gospel in their voices, beautiful pop and R&B ballads and funky, psychedelic upbeat songs as well. They probably didn't know it at the time, but they really set the tone for what pop music was becoming, especially for Black musicians. At that time if you were Black, you were pretty much just R&B or soul; they wouldn't really consider you to be pop. People also have an emotional attachment to Motown music, and I think because of that it gets passed down from generation to generation, just like the tale of Superman or Spider-Man – because The Temptations’ music is just so classic and the lyrics are so relatable to anybody, no matter what colour you are. Even in our musical, we will have shows where we see an eight year old in the front row watching the whole show completely enthralled; it’s so inspiring. I think The Temptations have stood the test of time because of how unique they were and because of how much the world really needed them at that time. There was so much death and tragedy that happened during that time and The Temps gave something that people could hold on to. It’s awesome to hear people say, “I was standing on the bus getting ready to go march when I heard ‘I Wish it Would Rain’ for the first time” – that’s a very serious relationship to have with something, and to be able to pass that down to your children is so beautiful.

Ain't Too Proud
(L - R) Harrel Holmes Jr., Jalen Harris, Dwayne P. Mitchell,
Michael Andreaus, E. Clayton Cornelious from the National Touring 
​​​​​​Company of Ain’t Too Proud. Credit: © 2023 Emilio Madrid.

Do you have a favourite moment or a favourite song in the show?

I love the show so much, I have so many! But I'll just keep it simple: I love it when they meet Shelly Berger for the first time; when he comes to Motown and is introduced as their new manager. It's so funny and every audience we've seen over the last 700+ shows always has the same reaction and it's so much fun. My other favorite moment is in “Cloud Nine” during the reunion tour, when you get to see all the old and the new Temptations come together and perform. It’s like a mega-Temptation mix and the song is just so awesome; it has such a great rhythm, but the choreography and the staging are amazing. It's the most tiring song for us to perform, but it is something to just be on stage with my brothers and have all of us be highlighted and shine as the Temp that we play, from Damon Harris, to Eddie, to David [Ruffin], and even Dennis Edwards.

What do you think is the most important takeaway of the show?

I’ve got a couple [laughs]!

First, it’s really hard to be a Temptation! With The Temptations being a household name, being able to present an adaptation of their style, audiences can see how hard the vocals, the choreography and all of it is. But I think message-wise, Dominique Morisseau, the author who wrote the show so beautifully and was so deserving of the Tony she won for it, I think that her greatest point is that we're so much more alike than we are different. You can see that through The Temptations’ individual stories, and you see it in the story as a whole being told from Otis’ perspective; through the loss of his brothers in the group and his son and losing emotional and romantic ties to the mother of his child, all for the sake of his career. I hope people take away the realization of the things that mean the most of them, and the knowledge that they should cherish those things because life is so short. It's important to pursue your dreams, but it's also important to enjoy life and enjoy the moments that you have with the people that you love the most. Anything is possible, anything is achievable and I think that's a greater message within the show, but I hope – Jalen hopes – that people leave with not only a wonderful experience and feel invigorated by the music that they love so much, but that they can also look at their neighbour and have empathy and understanding for the people around them, knowing that it takes it takes a lot to live your dreams, but it also takes a lot to be a person of your word and to commit yourself to the people you love.

I think after seeing the show, people become more sensitive to the people that are around them as well and that's also something I want people to take away – I hope that people feel better about themselves and, if someone has a very limited way of thinking, I hope that this expands their way of thinking and opens them up to the beauty that makes the world so different and gets us out of this ultra conservative type of mentality.

I also understand that you have an EP that just came out – can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you with this album?

My EP, ManneKin, came out on November 28th and it is like my love child! I got started when I was 15 on American Idol and, for the last 13 years, I have been working on my sound and working to make this the best project I can do. The final single off the EP is called “Love Me Now”, but “Delicious” is the feature track on the album; it's the most viewed, the most played, the most streamed song so far. Not only am I really excited about the reception of it, but it also allows me to highlight the musicians that influenced me in my life, like Lenny Kravitz, Michael Jackson, and Prince – you'll hear my inspiration from Prince the most in “Delicious”. But I’ve also been inspired by so many of the other greats as well, including the Temptations. I’ve learned so much through the process of recording this album while playing Eddie Kendricks and being a Temptation; it’s like holding up a big mirror to myself. I hope people love it and I hope that the greatest takeaway is that we aren't anybody’s mannequin; we are more than the box people want to put us in, and we are all kin to each other. That's why the album is called ManneKin, with “kin” in the title.

You can watch the video for “Delicious” below and don’t miss your chance to see Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks during Broadway Across Canada’s presentation of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, on stage from December 26th through December 31st at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. Click the link below for more information or to purchase tickets.

* Note that this interview has been edited for length and conciseness.


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