When this year’s Tony Award nominations were announced, Jeremy Pope became only the sixth person Tony history nominated twice in the same season. His performance in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy as Pharus, a bullied, gay prep school student whose singing talent is matched by a fierce determination, has Pope in the running for Best Lead Actor/play. And as the great Eddie Kendricks, the Temptation who sang lead on such hits as “Just My Imagination” and “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” Pope’s performance in Ain’t Too Proud has him up for Best Featured Actor/musical.
In this conversation, Pope explains how his double play almost didn’t happen, about what inspired each role and about a Tony night years ago that proved far unhappier than the one he’s about to experience.
Ain’t Too Proud – The Life And Times Of The Temptations, directed by Des McAnuff, with book by Dominique Morisseau with music and lyrics from the Motown catalogue, is playing at the Imperial Theatre. Choir Boy, directed by Trip Cullman, ran from Dec. 12, 2018 to March 10, 2019, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: Choir Boy begins when your character, Pharus, is insulted on stage [with a homophobic slur] by another member of the school choir, and everything proceeds from that point. Can you look back on your life and see a moment that set everything else in motion?
Jeremy Pope: Yeah, actually it’s strange, because it was the night of the Tony Awards. I’d been at a friend’s house. Patina Miller had won [for Pippin], so it must have been 2013. I was wearing a blue polka-dotted shirt and I was walking home with a friend. The friend lived on 141st Street and I lived on 145th Street, so we said bye and I kept walking. And in between those four blocks someone saw me, didn’t say anything, and just came and punched me right in my face. We were about to begin previews [Off Broadway] for Choir Boy, so I had to go to rehearsal the next day with a black eye.
I remember it being the first time that I became aware of maybe how I carried myself out in the streets, or just how a polka-dotted…you know, did I get hit because he thought I was gay? Did I look at him too long? There was no reason. He didn’t take my phone and he didn’t take my money, but it diminished my character. It made me want to put my head down. There was a sense of fear as I walked the streets of New York for a little while. And to this day I still don’t understand why that had to happen, but it drew me closer to Pharus and just what he has to go through and what he has to navigate, and what so many people have to navigate in just existing and just being.
Deadline: What’s interesting about Pharus, not only in the way you play him, but the way he was written, is that he does’t retreat after the slur. He gets angry. Did Pharus change at all in the development of the play?
Pope: He did. Tarell is a brilliant collaborator and I love, love working with him. He is so open to me as the actor figuring out what language Pharus speaks. There would be times in the room where I would say something that he had written doesn’t feel right. He would start the scene over and say, “I need you to improvise. I need to hear where you’re coming from.” And a lot of the time that became the dialogue between Pharus and his roommate or whomever. That was such a cool and interesting kind of process to have.
Also, I think what shifted, having worked with Tarell in 2013 and then five years later on Broadway, was Tarell had gone off and is now the head of the playwright division at Yale. So he has had to run an institution, and I think with the first version of Pharus he was coddling this young gay effeminate character. He was nervous because it’s so easy to be judged, so he was trying to kind of baby this character, I think. We didn’t want to push Pharus too far. But I think this next go around we just got to see different colors of Pharus where, like you said, he doesn’t retract. Sometimes he pushes too far. He crosses some lines and he manipulates, and I think that humanizes him. Sometimes you’re rooting for Pharus and then sometimes you’re like, Pharus you went too far.
Deadline: So how would you describe Pharus in just a few words?
Pope: Extremely ambitious.
Deadline: Now I’ll ask you the same question about Eddie Kendricks, the Temptation you play in Ain’t Too Proud.
Pope: Eddie is extremely protective. I use the word extreme because each of the characters I played this season is extreme in his own way. Eddie Kendricks was known for being extremely protective of The Temptations, protective of the rights of the group. I believe he was an artist first, and trying to ride the wave of The Temptations I think overcame him. It became overwhelming. Decisions were being made that outside of the brotherhood, it got bigger than the small town boys from the South who just wanted to sing. It became about crossing over and bringing together the black and white [audiences] and pushing the needle forward in the type of music they were going to put out. Ultimately it ended in him leaving the group and going solo, trying to find himself in his own music.
Deadline: You must feel that wave even today. With the first few notes of a song like “My Girl,” the audience at the Imperial just sort of melts into it. They go crazy. The songs seem personal to each audience member.
Pope: There was such an essence and a beauty to Eddie’s tone. One thing that’s been interesting working on this show and learning so much about The Temptations is that I have Otis [Williams], the last original founding member of The Temptations. He literally Face Timed me before this phone call just now, just to hear how I was doing this week. He’s told me so many stories, just poured his heart out about Eddie. These men went through so much, and behind the beauty of the music and their voices is so much pain. I think the one thing that I hear differently now when I hear Eddie Kendricks sing is it [still] sounds so pretty and he’s so happy, always smiling and winking, but I think sometimes it was very dark and lonely, and scary for these black men. I can only imagine just how fearful they were during the time when they were so successful.
Deadline: Your mentioning Otis makes me think of something I’ve wanted to ask. Otis is the only survivor of the original group, and I wonder if the cast playing the other Temptations feel as if you need to protect your Temptation. Have you ever thought, okay, that’s Otis’ story, but what would Eddie have said?
Pope: It’s interesting because [Ain’t Too Proud] is a story driven by Otis’s narrative, and what he says to be true. And one thing I love about Otis is he would be the first to tell you that he’s no saint, he’s made his mistakes, and he’s done his shit. If you just look at the facts, Otis wasn’t a leading man. Otis was behind the scenes. And this moment, this play, where he gets to narrate what we’re hearing from his point of view, feels like the songs he didn’t get to lead. This feels like that moment for him, because David and Eddie both had their moments and their spotlights.
So, yes, I do feel that I’m showing up for Eddie Kendricks and Ephraim [Sykes] is showing for David Ruffin. We’re all showing up for our characters, but it just feels like Otis was the backbone. Otis was holding these men up, was keeping it going – and is continuing to keep the legacy of these black men alive. So while I hate that I didn’t have Eddie Kendricks to talk to and ask why he left the group and what did you feel, we have Otis Williams. We have the manager Shelly Berger who was the closest with Eddie and that’s been another resource. Oddly enough Shelly and I have the closest relationship in the group, so there’s just something that’s happening over here. It feels very spiritual.
Deadline: What is the main difference between playing a historical person like Eddie and a fictional character like Pharus?
Pope: You know, with Pharus, a lot of the responses I got from people was that they felt like it was the first time they were seen on stage, like it was the first time they’d seen theater that was about them and their struggles and their narrative, these black queer men. So that was special. One of the things I love about Choir Boy is the relationship Pharus has with his straight roommate, who welcomes him. I think we were able to shift people’s thinking in such a magical way. And with Ain’t Too Proud, I just love that people get to experience the brotherhood of these men, even though they fought and they struggled.
I just feel lucky being a part of two of the biggest, best, blackest Broadway shows ever, and to be a part of two shows that are ensemble-driven. I feel that way about my boys in Choir Boy and I feel the same way about my family here at Ain’t Too Proud.
Deadline: How do you imagine you’ll look back on this time of your life?
Pope: I think I’ll look back and know that we offered pieces of art that changed the narrative for people. We offered pieces of art that showed black people that they are good enough, that they are beautiful, that they are complicated and their stories are worth being promoted on the commercial Broadway stage. There weren’t really a lot of shows for young Jeremy at the time that I graduated college.
Deadline: Was there ever a point where you didn’t think you’d be able to do both shows this season? How would you have resolved a scheduling conflict?
Pope: I was actually in LA. doing our run of Ain’t Too Proud and we had just announced the Broadway run, so everyone was there and celebrating. And then I get the call about the official dates for Choir Boy, and they are overlapping. I started to panic a little bit. There was a time where I was on the phone with the Ain’t Too Proud producers and [Choir Boy] producers, and they were kind of like, Listen, J, we need to know what decision you’re going to make. I then had to just be grateful for what I had done to that point with Ain’t Too Proud. My parents had seen the show, we had been to four cities by this time, and I kind of realized, well maybe you’ve done Ain’t Too Proud. Broadway would’ve been nice, but maybe this is where it ends. I had already basically committed to Choir Boy. We had done the workshop and I had told Tarell that I was going to be there, so I was getting ready to let go [of Ain’t Too Proud].
What I told them was, I am not choosing. You’re going to have to fire me. I said, I would love for you Ain’t Too Proud producers and MTC [Manhattan Theatre Club, producer of Choir Boy] to sit down in a room and look at a calendar, and see what are our options. And they met. I’m so grateful to everyone at MTC – they pushed Choir Boy two weeks earlier, so that I could leave two weeks earlier and I could start Ain’t Too Proud. I had built a family at Choir Boy and I had built a family with Ain’t Too Proud, and they both wanted me to win. They wanted to see this young black artist succeed. They saw something in me greater than I saw in myself. Lynne Meadow, who is the head of MTC, said to me at the first day of rehearsals for Choir Boy, “We had to move mountains to make this work, but I want you to enjoy it.” I saw her at the Tony luncheon, and she asked me, “So are you enjoying it?” And I was able to say, “Yes, I am.”