Jahi Kearse is a hoofer, a singer, a musician, a powerful actor, and a songwriter who critics and DC area theatregoers have enthusiastically embraced his performances in MetroStage’s Cool Papa’s Party, Round House Theatre’s Pippin, and The Studio Theatre’s Slam!, Top Dog/Underdog, Passing Strange, and Slam!
Tomorrow, April 27th, Jahi will be making his Broadway debut in the new musical Baby It’s You! Here he tells us how Cool Papa’s Party helped to land him on Broadway.
Joel: This is your Broadway debut. Congratulations!
Jahi: Thank you very much!
Tell us about Baby It’s You!.
Jahi: It’s the story of Florence Greenberg – a former New Jersey housewife – who had an itching to do something in the music industry. Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, Florence and her daughter were famous for finding The Shirelles, as well as signing a whole list of artists who were successful in their day.
She also represented Dionne Warwick, Tammi Terrell, Chuck Jackson, B.J. Thomas, Ronald Isley, and Jocko. She traveled with Jocko and with Gene Chadler (“The Duke of Earl”).
How did you get involved with Baby It’s You!
Jahi: It was kind of a fluke. I was in town to see Fela! and two of my friends were in Fela!, and the Musical Director Ron had seen Cool Papa’s Party at MetroStage, and he told me he was working on a couple of projects that I might be interested in. The first one was a Ray Charles musical Unchain My Heart. I had come up to New York to audition for that.
And that one was cancelled or postponed, right?
Jahi: It’s still ‘up-in-the-air’ and they’re trying to get it going and I think it’s going through some lawsuits. And because of that audition, I got another call to come up and audition for Baby It’s You! through my agent. They didn’t really need me, but I think because I auditioned for several of their creative team – they were involved in the Ray Charles musical and were now involved in Baby It’s You!- I got pushed to come in and audition.
I came up to New York. I was in-between jobs. I had just finished a job in Atlanta – I was doing Gut Bucket Blues at True Colors. And David Bell – who I love – directed it, and it was a story about Bessie Smith.
Who did you play?
Jahi: I played her husband Jack Gee. So that show had just closed and I was in a – well, you know how we actors are when we are in between times when we don’t know what’s coming next – so we are half-way broke, half-way afraid that our lives will collapse because for the moment we have nothing. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t know where any money was coming from, but I got an email asking me if I’d like to audition for this show.
I didn’t have much else to do and I put a large chunk of the money I had into an overnight plane ticket – I couldn’t get a deal like a 20-day advance ticket – it was a ridiculously expensive plane ticket – and I flew up to New York. I did the audition the next day and it went fairly OK. I sang, “What a Wonderful World”, and they seemed to like it. Then I sang a few tunes from the show.
I went back to the place I was staying and I didn’t know what I should do. Should I wait or go back to Atlanta? So I waited a day and a half and I was still in town and they asked me if I could go in and do a ‘dance call’. I did and then stayed in NYC a week and a half and did three other auditions, and the night before I had to absolutely go back to Atlanta – because I had to leave the place I was staying – I got a call from my newly-acquired agent that they were offering me the role.
What a story!
Jahi: It’s pretty quirky actually!
You are playing School Yard Dancer and are understudying the roles of Jocko, Chuck Jackson, Ronald Isley, and Bass Man.
Jahi: My main duty in the show is to cover Geno Henderson who plays Jocko.
How often do you have rehearsals for these roles?
Jahi: The maximum we can have are 3 rehearsals a week. When we have some time to do it, the understudies have been coming to the theatre and running through the show. I think my ‘going on’ [See below] pushed the calendar forward for everyone because we are at the point where everyone needs to know everyone’s role, so nothing unfortunate happens.
The role that I have in the show – School Yard Dancer – is actually a role that kinda put in the show because I think they realized that I can move well and every night I get to go in and do some of the early numbers in the show. But the role I am covering – Jocko – he is a disc jockey who was touring and had a radio program at the time of The Shirelles for Decca Record in their heyday. He worked with a whole host of people. He did radio spots for James Brown and The Isley Brothers, and The Shirelles. He was kinda all over the map. He was a Rock ‘n’ Roll deejay, he was a soul deejay, but he was considered in many ways to be ‘The Grandfather of Rap’.
Back in the day his radio programs consisted of a lot of ‘rhythmic rhyming’ [Jahi demonstrates], “This is Jocko the jock. I’m here on the scene with the record machine!” This is pretty much a first back in that day. He was an ‘African American Cat’! He is considered the ‘Grandfather of modern day Hip-hop’, which I find very interesting.
Have you gone on as Jocko yet?
Jahi: Yes. I have an interesting story about that. I’m only 32, and I have been doing professional theatre for over 20 years now, and this is my first time doing an understudy role. I really didn’t know how to prepare for it, so I learned the role and am always ready. We went through the whole rehearsal process, and during our tech week – without rehearsing – I sat around and watched Geno playing the role. Unfortunately after the first preview during a rehearsal – thank God it didn’t go worse than it did – he hurt his ankle. An eight foot moving TV screen that was on a track caught his foot.
So after having no rehearsal at all – and not even having sung the songs in front of the production staff – it was like, “He’s down, so here you go!” So I had to go on in the second preview, and then for the next two weeks.
So how did it go?
Jahi: It went great actually! The first night I moved on pure adrenaline. The second night was a little more sobering. It was a welcomed challenge for me. I never had an experience like that, and I have always been in roles that I knew all the ‘Ps and Qs’ of the show. Only watching Geno in rehearsals doing the role and then being tossed into the role in front of a large Broadway audience was terrifying and invigorating.
It was the best thing that ever happened to you because you showed them what you could do and that you were reliable and a quick study. So it was a big blessing.
Jahi: I think so. Even if not for them but for me – it’s one of the proudest theatre moments I have ever had.
Let’s talk about The Shirelles for a moment. What made them different from other girl groups like the Supremes?
Jahi: The girls that have been cast in the roles of The Shirelles are amazing and beautiful. All four have different personalities and so distinctly different, and they come together in a really quirky and unique way.
The Shirelles had many hits including, “Tonight’s the Night”, “Dance With Me”, “Baby It’s You”, “Dedicated to the One I Love”. There are a lot of songs in this show – 36 if I counted correctly not counting the 5 reprises.
Jahi: In fact they cut down the number of songs for this production, because if you kept them all in it would be a 2 hour and 45 minute show.
I think the length (2:15 including intermission) was perfect for the show.
Jahi: I agree.
What did you learn about The Shirelles that you didn’t know before you started?
Jahi: First, they were in a time where one of the big things in music was street corner-type Doo-wop, and singing love songs, and The Shirelles were like emeralds in a room full of squeakers. They were classy. They had sophistication about them that drew people to them. They were very simple. They didn’t do a lot of vocal acrobatics. They didn’t have fancy choreography. They just stood there and looked graceful and sang beautiful songs.
Tony Award winner Beth Leavel plays Florence Greenberg. What impresses you most about her performance.
Jahi: I absolutely adore her! For a Tony winner she is unbelievably humble and gracious and funny. She everyday would sit me down and crack jokes about me and with me from the first rehearsal – and she didn’t know me and I am not involved in a way like everybody else was and is in the production. As standbys we sit there and wait for our turn, but because Beth is who she is – she fills up a room! Her voice is amazing. Her timing and understanding of the character – I mean she is Florence Greenberg.
What has Beth taught you and the younger actors in the show?
Jahi: To have fun with it. She approached the rehearsals and the shows with such ease. She’s teaching me to ‘roll with the punches’, because there have been constant changes, modifications to the script and transition scenes, and even modifications to the arc of the play so we can do the best story we can find. She has just moved with it. I mean she could play the diva role if she wanted to. Instead, she has only been grateful and focused and an important part of keeping the spirit in the room light and happy. She is hilarious and gifted, and she is definitely our leader.
Since I last saw you, two big spring musicals have opened to lukewarm and/or scathing reviews. What changes is Baby It’s You working on that will make the critics stand up and applaud your efforts?
Jahi: They are doing some cutting and from my standpoint – they are trying to get a hodgepodge of three things: a 1960’s sitcom TV show crossed with an American Band-ish kind of thing crossed with ‘Behind The Music’- that show that used to be on VH1.
One of the directors, Floyd Mutrux, is a film director and there is a lot of TV and film in the show – and I think they are trying to get the pace of the show to move more like a TV show with transitions being very much predicated on visuals. They are also taking interest in making Florence Greenberg’s family life a more pivotal part of the story. In a lot of ways she ran away from her family structure to find herself, and also to do something good for her family.
And to show all the problems that happened because of her decision to leave?
Jahi: Absolutely! Her collapsing marriage and her kids going through what young adults go through and blaming their parents, and at the time when she was making a major move in the music industry – the whole culture of the country was in transition. We had the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War was coming into a peak, Nixon was going through that craziness, so there were a lot of shifting elements.
What do you think the critical reaction will be when Baby It’s You! opens?
Jahi: I don’t know how Baby It’s You! will do critically, but there is something that audiences are eating up about this piece. Personally, there are so many nice things to say about this experience I have had, and the cast and the crew. The one thing that is very honest – is that even if the information is being used in an entertaining way – the show has an obvious love for the music in this time period and the directors have obvious affection for these girls – The Shirelles – and the cast and crew have respect for Florence Greenberg. We have already met her son and her daughter who have come to the rehearsal process and to one of the previews.
What did they say?
Jahi: Stan was the only one who I heard when I was in the room, and he was very honored in the way he was portrayed in the production.
And Stan is the blind son.
Jahi: Yes, and he is a big part of the music production and songwriting back in that time.
You can’t ask for anything better than that.
Jahi: I really appreciate it because every night there is a standing ovation. The house has been packed due to great marketing and good sales, but it’s not just that they are standing up – but it’s the way that they are standing up. There is a synergy that is in the air. Some nights the audience will sing every song in the show with the cast that’s onstage. It’s just amazing! It becomes like a shared rock concert every night.
And that doesn’t bother you or distract you?
Jahi: No! It’s going to help this production stand apart from other shows. The show is very interactive in a very unapparent way. There are only a few moments when we pass through that ‘fourth wall’ and those moments are when we are in a concert setting and the audience is acting as an audience. There’s just something that’s happening every night, and I’m hoping that it will continue to get better. There is a kinetic synergy that is passing from the stage to the audience. I’m watching little old ladies twisting and shouting in the aisles every night with us. And that’s more important than just standing up for a play. These audiences are showing their appreciation for a time they want to remember and relive.
You were scheduled to appear in a special concert for understudies and standbys on March 20th and 21st.
Jahi: I was asked to do this annual concert – it’s a great idea and a great experience – which I was very much looking forward to – and I regret I didn’t do it because I was going to sing some of my own music. Another cast member Berlando Drake, who is understudying Shirley, did go on. That was the first week that I went on for Jocko.
Let’s talk about your own music. You have recorded two CDs.
Jahi: Yes. Two CDs I put up myself. One is called ‘Bedroom Acoustics” and the other is called “Memoirs of a BlueChild” and I am now working in a studio on putting up an EP. The best way to describe them is that they are ‘folk-rock-soul’ music. I learned guitar playing Woody Guthrie in a play many years ago so my guitar playing style is rooted in folk music and blues, but I grew up singing in the church, so I have soul music deep inside of me. I’ve spent my life in musical theatre so that storytelling aspect has never left my person. My songs are very story-based. I write many love songs and not just about ‘partnership love’, but love in a more global compass. I like to hope that my music is a combination of Bill Withers, Nina Simone, and Michael Jackson.
There is a great video of your song called “Good Morning” on YouTube. [Watch it below]. It’s really beautiful.
Jahi: Thank you. It’s one of my favorite pieces and a friend of mine V-chit out of LA directed it.
Where can they buy the CDs?
Jahi: In about two months they will be on ITunes, and my website will be up www.jahikearse.com.
You electrified DC area audiences with your portrayal of Cool Papa in Cool Papa’s Party at MetroStage, in Alexandria, VA, where you acted, sang, tapped, and danced your heart out playing a character that looked very much like Sammy Davis, Jr. What’s happening with the show? I heard there were auditions held in NYC.
Jahi: I did the auditions in NYC, and things popped up and Cool Papa’s Party kinda stalled. I’m not involved in the project anymore, so I am a few arm-lengths away. I do believe they are still working on it, and I think they had Wayne Brady involved for a moment. I do know that while we were rehearsing for Baby It’s You! – Cool Papa’s Party was rehearsing in a rehearsal spot in NYC. I still think it is going forward and I hope it opens on Broadway because I think what Tom Jones and William Knowles wrote – helped to bring to the page a slick, slick story. It needed some work and needed some loving but I hope to see it on Broadway, because it deserves it.
Let’s talk about your work at The Studio Theatre in DC. You played the narrator and played guitar in Passing Strange. And appeared in Top Dog/Underdog where you played Younger Brother Booth, which you also played in Minnesota.
Jahi: Studio and Joy Zinoman and Serge Seiden were so good to me. Tom Jones is really the reason I got to Studio Theatre in the first place. I did a show in 1999 called Slam! which Tom wrote about urban poetry. I was playing The Leading Player in Pippin at Round House Theatre in 2003, which was directed by Tom, when I auditioned for Top Dog/Underdog at Studio. Tom asked me to come and audition for Top/Dog…which was one of my greatest experiences. It was such a heavy, heavy play, a nasty piece that ends in such a tragic way. It showed me what being an actor was really about. Just working with Joy, who I think is a genius – she’s so smart and understands what she is trying to do. There are many people who think they know how they want to do something, but Joy is someone who knows what she wants to do and actually gets it done.
Which roles that are now on Broadway would you love to play?
Jahi: I’d love to do anything in The Book of Mormon.
I would love to get a ticket to Mormon! [Big laughs].
Jahi: I saw it during previews. They have done something ‘side-splitting’. It’s hilarious! There is also a show called Born Bad going on at Soho Rep and Lynn Nottage’s new work at Second Stage – By The Way, Meet Vera Stark. Honestly, I am hoping for the success of Baby It’s You! because the show is so heartwarming, the cast is great, so I would love to work in this show for a while.
Why should DC theatregoers come up to NYC to see you in Baby It’s You!?
Jahi: Because I love you guys and love DC! And it’s a party! It’s a story worthwhile seeing. It’s so nice to see women portrayed in such powerful and graceful roles and this show is packed with talented and gifted and ingenious women, who lived very masterful lives. And The Shirelles and Florence Greenberg as well as Jocko and Luther Dixon are characters that will transport us all back to a time when music was simpler, and music in a lot of ways helped us to navigate some of the obstacles that we were facing in our culture. So come party with me!
Baby It’s You! is playing at The Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. in New York, NY. Purchase tickets here.