Ephraim Sykes can’t seem to leave the ’60s. He played Otis Williams in the Broadway show Motown the Musical, was a critical darling as Seaweed in NBC’s Hairspray Live, and now can be seen in the role of Temptations’ member David Ruffin in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations, making its pre-Broadway engagement at the Kennedy Center through July 22.
“The R&B era of the ’60s seems to be my pocket right now,” Sykes says. “Seaweed is almost a young David Ruffin in a way only without all the turmoil and craziness. But the soul and the reason for dancing and singing were all the same.”
Even though the music of the 60’s is before Sykes’ time—he was born in 1985— Motown music was some of the first music he ever heard and what he grew up with in his household.
“This is in my body and in my mind, and always has been,” he says. “The Temptations are a group that my family, and a lot of us in the African American community, and all of us throughout the country have always loved and appreciated. And coming up as a performer, I always listened to them and understood how suave and groovy they were.”
Members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, The Temptations are known for their unmistakable harmonies and signature dance moves, and saw 42 songs hit the Top Ten charts, with an incredible 14 of them rising to No. 1. But not everything was rosy for the group, as Ain’t Too Proud shows.
When Sykes first delved into their story as a performer, researching the role of Otis for Motown, he read a lot of Berry Gordy’s books and watched different documentaries and was enamored with the famed Temptations miniseries from 1998.
“I watched it over and over again and still watch,” Sykes says. “When I took on this new role, I re-read and re-discovered some of the things that I have been looking at my whole life, and went more in depth with David personally.”
Although his character’s time with The Temptations was short—1964-1968—he was lead vocalist on some of its biggest hits, including “My Girl,” “I Wish it Would Rain” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
Naturally, all three are part of this production. It was up to prize–winning playwright Dominique Morisseau to decide which of The Temptations classics to include, and along with director Des McAnuff, the pair have created what Sykes believes to be a wondrous homage to the legendary group with this show.
“She was born and raised in Detroit and this story is part of her family’s blood and history and as she was laying out the story, she was able to see what spoke best to the themes of the show. Her language is very poetic and true to the way Detroitians speak,” Sykes says. “Des helped steer and direct the vision and we’re still shaping it today, adding and subtracting some songs from our original run.”
Unlike Motown, which is more a fun jukebox musical highlighting some of the best musicians of the era, Ain’t Too Proud is darker in tone and has a much deeper story.
“The nostalgia comes only through the music. We go much more in-depth in the lives of these men, and not just the highlights but a lot of the struggles they were going through and the sacrifices they were making,” Sykes says. “There was a lot of trouble and turmoil, even while they were being praised and idolized. Little did we know what they were going through.”
Originally from St. Petersburg, Fla., with roots in the gospel church (his father is a pastor and mother a gospel singer), Sykes attended Fordham College with dreams of furthering a career in the theater.
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations
at The Kennedy Center
closes July 22, 2018
Details and tickets
“I had such a heavy interest in music, and I grew up watching MTV and BET TV and my idol was always Michael Jackson, but I loved the old school of James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire, and I wanted to sing and dance and perform like those guys,” Sykes says. “I happened to be in a town that had an arts program and started off as a musician, and concert dance and modern dance.”
His first Broadway show was The Little Mermaid in 2009. He’s also appeared in Newsies and was a member of the original cast of Hamilton, playing George Eacker and understudying Hercules/James Madison.
Speaking of Hamilton: “It’s still so hard to describe the experience. It’s like being inside a speeding bullet, being inside of this cultural phenomenon as it was happening,” he says. “This was the first time in my generation of seeing something have that cultural impact from the theater. Being inside of it, we had great leadership keeping our feet on the ground as things were bubbling all around us. We were led to continue being true to the meaning of the piece. I knew from the first reading that I was a part of something great.”
Sykes shares that one doesn’t need to be a fan of Motown to appreciate the show, as a group of students from Duke Ellington Art School who recently came out to see the production showed him. Many of the kids weren’t familiar with The Temptations.
“These kids experienced a cast of people on stage that looked like them, not just singing and dancing well and snapping well, but really telling true stories with emotional ranges and dynamics,” Sykes says. “I think they saw a lot of themselves and with the Temptations, they were brought to a time that we seemed to have lost with music in this country—the male singing groups. You hear very little R&B on the radio today, so to see some of the roots of that is very powerful.”
When Sykes came outside the stage door after the show, many of these kids were standing in a circle snapping and singing harmonies together. It’s been one of his favorite moments of the tour.