It’s been a remarkable year so far for Jeremy Pope. The 26-year-old actor made his resounding Broadway debut to kick off 2019 with the Jan. 8 opening of Choir Boy, written by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight). But there was no time for Pope to take in the life-changing energy and rave reviews. (EW’s Nick Romano, in his review, said that the “strikingly talented, fresh-faced Jeremy Pope…commands the stage.”) Even while that limited run was winding down, he was transitioning to another major role on the Great White Way: as Temptations co-founder Eddie Kendricks in Dominique Morisseau’s jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud. It premiered last month and is currently playing at the iconic Imperial Theatre.
It’s at once a full-circle moment and a thrilling breakthrough for Pope. After all, he grew up on Choir Boy: Six years ago in its first run at the Manhattan Theater Club at City Center, Pope originated the role of Pharus Jonathan Young, a buoyant, immensely talented young gay man who earns a scholarship to the Charles R Drew Prep School for Boys, and specifically to its selective gospel choir. A raw, intense meditation on black masculinity and sexuality, the play asked a lot of the then-teenage-aged Pope, he tells EW, as he himself was growing up black and gay. And he’s grown with the character and the story into adulthood — and into success.
Now he’s in the unusual position of being busier than ever while, as Tony season rears its head, being forced into a bit of reflection at the same time. (He’s eligible to be nominated for both shows.) EW caught up with Pope by phone to discuss just that. Read on below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So let’s start with the obvious, and what an amazing season this has been for you. How are you feeling right now, generally?
JEREMY POPE: Day by day, I’m going by, and I’m really processing it all. Because of the hustle and the bustle of it all, I’ve just been going-going. But it feels amazing. The opportunity to have two shows that simultaneously were going on at the same time — and just what the shows mean to me, and what they’ve been doing for the audiences. Having black theater out there just feels really cool. I’m super grateful for it all.
Choir Boy has been a part of your life for so long now. Being a little distant from its ending on Broadway now, how is that experience, as a whole, resonating for you right now?
When I first did Choir Boy back in 2013, I really didn’t know how long this character and this play and this piece were going to be living and sitting with me. I’m so grateful that it came back around. The first time I did it, it was my first job in New York City; very young and green. This go-around I was very aware of the importance of this story and how important it was for people to see young black actors on stage and telling our story and our narrative. What Tarell did so brilliantly with the piece is ask hard questions when I don’t think we necessarily have the answers, regarding the black community and when it comes to brotherhood and religion and homosexuality. There are a lot of conversations that we’re afraid to have because the answers, sometimes, are messy. I was grateful to be a part of a piece that started a conversation and presented black men in a very strong way. Being aware of it now, here we are in 2019; it being my Broadway debut, but over the last few years where I was working, I hadn’t done a piece that felt like what Choir Boy feels like. I knew how important it was for us to tell this story. For as little as we ran — I think it was three months — I hope we were able to change a lot of lives. I heard from people who either saw a part of their life shown onstage or were able to get an understanding of what it might feel like or what it might be like.
And there’s a power in doing it on Broadway, where the audience is so much larger and more mainstream. Did you feel that shift, that significance?
For sure. The coolest thing is having tourists, people who have no idea what Choir Boy is, come in. We’re rocking their world. It’s painful, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful. There’s a music element to it — the a cappella gospel spirituals, which have an essence. It’s not a musical, but it’s a play with this incredible music that furthers the plot. It was cool to see what it could do to a bigger audience. I feel like people were on the ride with me and with us, and were willing to go where we needed to go.
More specifically, had did your relationship to the role of Pharus change? You were much younger when you started playing him.
Pharus has helped me grow as an individual. You know, you’re asking a lot of an actor — especially when I was first doing it. You have to be so vulnerable to step in the skin of Pharus. A lot is being asked of Pharus, and you have to be grounded in who you are and what you are, and just comfortable in being exposed. I think as I’m dissecting why it felt harder or more of a freefall last time versus this time, it’s because growing up black — it’s hard, and it’s not really accepted of us to be emotional in that way, to express our emotions. You don’t want to be no punk. That hypermasculine tension that you feel. Walking into a role that’s asking me to dissect the community and express a part of me and emotions and feeling — and then there’s nudity in the play! There’s no more self that I can show to the City of New York. That’s how I was looking at it as a young Jeremy. Going in to play Pharus the first time, I was really laying a lot out there. But I’m so grateful that I did. It taught me to risk it all. I’m so aware of the moment that we’re in and how important it is that, for a night on Broadway, a black queer narrative was the lead. We were watching that. I don’t know the last time I’ve seen that.
Pharus has healed a lot of us. He’s opened the eyes of many of us. Coming full-circle now, to be able to share it with a broader audience, I was incredibly moved — first, by Tarell, and how vulnerable and honest he is as a writer. It felt like my responsibility to show up for Pharus every night, to leave the Broadway-debuting Jeremy Pope behind, and just show up for Pharus. There was someone — whether it be one or 1,000 people in the audience — that needed to hear this story.
And so now you’re doing something in a very different key — a musical, in Ain’t Too Proud. In making that transition so quickly, what does your routine look like right now? What’s important to you in finding that balance?
Personally, I’ve grown a lot during this season. What I’m hyper-aware of right now is while I’m working quite hard — the hardest I’ve ever had to work, being needed in a lot of places — I’m remembering to give back to myself. I believe I’m the type of artist that will go out there every night. I’m a giver so I love to give as much as I can, whether it be one person or a big Broadway audience. Right now my days consist of resting and recharging. Like most performers, you want to leave it all out on the stage like it’s the last time, the last chance you get. With Pharus, it was a limited run, but even now doing Ain’t Too Proud and playing a legend, again I feel a responsibility to show up for him, and do as best as I can. We’re all aware of how busy this is. It’s a moment. I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely normal in this cycle or schedule, but I’m just grateful. And it can be over soon — how fast it can go by. Like I can’t believe Choir Boy came and went.
It is going by fast. So what are you looking to do next? What do you hope the next chapter looks like?
I would absolutely love to work with Tarell again. We’re always texting and calling each other and cutting up. I feel like the universe is going to find a crazy way of us working together again. I don’t know what capacity — on stage, behind the camera, in front of the camera — but I’m very open and optimistic to whatever is supposed to come my way.
I didn’t audition for Ain’t Too Proud like five or six times, because I was scared it was a musical with no heart and no feeling. They were being very precious and stingy with the script so I wasn’t able to read it. But once I got my hands on the script and I saw what our playwright Dominique Morisseau was doing with it…I knew this was an important story. I can’t imagine my life without doing this musical. Again, a reminder to me, to be open and ready to receive whatever the universe is willing and able to give me. I’m still growing and learning from everything that’s coming my way.