Alum achieves his name in lights
Since earning his M.F.A. from Brandeis in 2000, J. Bernard Calloway has come a long way. After only a couple of years on the Boston theater scene, the Alabama State University alum became involved in the musical Memphis, in which he plays the character Delray Farrell, in 2003. Six years of working on the show later, Calloway made his Broadway debut in Memphis at the end of last year. In the wake of the show's hundredth performance, Calloway discussed the enormous hard work and strokes of luck that have contributed to his success, as well as the influence of his instructors.JustArts: How's New York?
J. Bernard Calloway: It's great. The show is going really well, and we just celebrated our hundredth performance last night. I'm doing Memphis at the Schubert Theater, as you know.
JA: Did you have a good crowd?
JBC: Oh, it was something else. When you've been with something that long, you know-I've been working on the show since 2003, and I originated my role, and it's my Broadway debut!
JA: I was wondering about the process of bringing the play to New York. How did you first get involved with it?
JBC: I auditioned for it in New York City at Chelsea Studios. . I got the part and we did the first East Coast premiere of the show at North Shore Musical Theatre in Beverly, Mass. ... Then we did the West Coast premiere of the show out in Palo Alto at Theatre Works. That was, like, the spring of 2004. After that, it was just a lot of workshops, doing a lot of readings for donors. And then finally last fall the La Jolla [Playhouse] and 5th Avenue [Theatre] in Seattle picked it up, and we did it there. And we made it, so here we are.
JA: Did you feel that this was going to happen all along, or was there a lot of uncertainty?
JBC: We always felt like it was a great show. From the get-go everyone loved the show. It was received very, very well. I remember back in 2003 at North Shore how great the reviews were. It was always like, "Broadway-bound! Go see it!" The story just got better. . The whole process was like understanding what changes need to happen to make the show stronger. Because the show was so strong, but there were always parts that needed work, that could make the show that much better. That part of the process was very admirable. A lot of people wanted to just hurry up and get on Broadway. Like, "Okay, we've got the money, let's go, let's do it." But the show's not ready.
JA: Could you tell a little background about your character and the story?
JBC: My character's name is Delray Farrell, and he's about 35 years of age. He owns a nightclub in Memphis. He has this sister named Felicia who has a great voice. If you can imagine 1951, Memphis on Beale Street, it's an underground club, like in the basement type of club. We're all trying to make ends meet using what we have. And then all of a sudden you have Huey Calhoun, who's the lead of the show, played by Chad Kimball. He's this pasty white boy. ... And he immediately falls in love with [Felicia's] voice. He immediately falls in love with my music. And the play centers around those relationships, about him loving her voice and wanting to put it on the air because he's a DJ at a radio station.
He was going against the current, obviously, in using an African-American woman's voice on the airwaves in 1951. . Essentially she ends up falling in love with him, I believe, for that purpose and also because they truly fell in love. But my character is the antagonist of the show. . This is the era of like, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, people like that. There was restriction in the way that things had to be done in order to make it happen, especially in the South. . With all the ramifications, Delray . lets him [Huey] know that, "This is my sister, man. I don't care about what you want to do, but you have to make sure that nothing happens to her because she is the only one I have." ... So that's the character, the layout that goes on throughout the whole piece, and it shows how the music touched the different races through Huey playing race music on the airwaves. He's based on a true guy: His name is Joey Phillips, and he was a white disc jockey back in the 1950s, but for rights we used Huey Calhoun. . That's basically what he was doing, but he went about it doing it in such an unresponsible type of way, just willy-nilly with it. He got on the airwaves, and he was like, "This girl's gonna give me a big old kiss!"
JA: And it's a musical. So, had you done musicals before?
JBC: Yeah, actually I was in one at Brandeis when Michael Murray was ... the artistic director there. I was in Threepenny Opera. . The first regional production of Aida [at North Shore Musical Theatre], actually, I did with Montego Glover, who plays Felicia in our show. She was Aida in the show, and I played her father.
JA: So you've been doing a lot of acting since leaving Brandeis.
JBC: Yeah. Actually, right before I went to grad school I did my first professional gig, like the winter before the fall when school started. That was like a tour. . I was so young and red, I didn't know what was going on. I moved from state to state unloading trucks to build up the stage, and then after [each show] you break it down. I was an Equity membership candidate; I wasn't Equity yet.
At that time [Brandeis' Theater M.F.A.] program was an intensive place. You know, [Profs.] Janet Morrison (THA) and Marya Lowry (THA), Bob Walsh (THA), Michael Murray, when he was there. [Prof.] Nancy Armstrong (THA), all those people were so great at what they did and they made the program so awesome to be around. They made it that much more productive and gave us so many tools going to school there.
JA: And then you stuck around Boston for a while after that?
JBC: I was at the Boston Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. ... I worked on the Common in Julius Caesar. ... I also worked with the BCA, the Boston Center for the Arts, and I also worked at the New Repertory Theater. It's a small local community, and I had my hands in it, you know? It was summer out there. It was my first time spending time in Waltham by myself and it was the summer so there was no school, so I was like, "What am I going to do if I'm going to stay up here for the summer in Boston?" . It was really cool how much theater goes on in Boston. It's a great hubbub of creative work going on in Boston. I love working there.
JA: It's not quite New York.
JBC: It's a little New York [laughs]. It was a great breeding ground for me as far as my work is concerned. I met a lot of people that were very influential in where I am right now and everything that led up to that. They touched my life in certain ways that helped me grow while I was in school trying to do different jobs. You know, we were in class from 9 to 6 . so you can't work; they give you a stipend. But you don't have a job; you're really broke because you're paying rent. . Brandeis was a jungle, man; they made it tough, but it was something else. I'll never forget it. . Dr. Tommie Stewart, who's now the dean of the college, he was actually the director of the theater at Alabama State, he introduced me to Michael Murray over at Brandeis. ... I graduated in 1997, but I came home and taught in school in Fort Lauderdale in Broward County. And then I got this call, like, "Hey, you've got a job . And while you're there, we want to send your tape of Emperor Jones to this guy at Brandeis." I was like, "Okay, cool."
JA: That's a lucky break.
JBC: Yeah, it's great the way it happened, it was a total blessing.
JA: So what's your schedule like with Memphis? How many nights do you perform?
JBC: Eight shows a week, baby, eight shows a week: One on Tuesday, two on Wednesday, one on Thursday, one on Friday, two on Saturday, one on Sunday. We're off on Monday. But that doesn't even include, like, if you have to do rehearsal for some public relations work. Like if we have to be on Good Day New York, we have to rehearse how we're going to dance, what we're going to do. Like, we were on The View.
JA: Yeah, I saw that you guys were on The View, what was that like?
JBC: That was crazy, man. Crazy in a great way. . We do a show, Whoopi Goldberg comes to the show, and we're backstage talking it up with Whoopi Goldberg-me, David Bryan and some of the other cast members. We take a picture with her, and she's like, "You guys are great. I'm going to talk about you on the show." The first thing that came out of her mouth the next morning on The View was, "Before I say anything else, you all have to"-you know how she talks-"You all have to go see Memphis, baby." So that scene was shot because she loves the show so much. . So we had to rehearse during a two-show day for The View. . Broadway's tough, it's a beast. But that's what it's all about. This is my dream. I'm very passionate about what I do. . It's a blessing to have other people come and see your work and be touched by it.