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June 2, 2017
Interview: Jeremiah James on How His Character in ‘Sweetee’ Helps Him Make Sense of Our World
Credit: Matthew Murphy

In Sweetee, Jeremiah James plays Reverend Dan the pastor who wants the kids in his orphanage to find hope through music, as long as they stick to the hymns and songs of praise he approves of. When he meets the talented Sweetee (Jordan Tyson) who has a knack for trouble and a voice made for soul music, he finds himself at odds between what he knows is right, and what his pride tells him should be done. With his imposing physical presence (if they ever turn Mad Men into a musical look no further for your Don Draper) and fantastic voice, James makes Reverend Dan a complex character the likes of which should make audiences discuss the show long after they see it. We spoke to the actor about the challenges of playing a character unafraid to show his flaws, how making art helps him understand the world, and his stint in the longest running musical of all time.

I saw the third performance of the show, when do you know you’re all set in the character?

Usually by the second preview. Once I know how the audience is going to react, sorta since all audiences are different, I feel like I’ve settled.

Why did you want to play Reverend Dan?

To be perfectly honest they didn’t have a finished script when I first encountered it, but I did an audition with Jordan Tyson who was eventually cast as Sweetee, and it was the scene where Dan becomes quite unhinged and we see that he is deeply flawed. I read that scene and realized it would be a challenge because it was so far removed from who I am.

What makes an actor want to play someone who is so different than them? If I see someone nasty I would run away rather than try to get under their skin.

I’m a very happy-go-lucky guy and at the start of my career I played bubbly, goofy characters which I loved playing. But it’s very challenging to play a dark role when you’re a happy person, you basically get to tap into this well of ugliness that might not exist in your daily life. You make people squirm, you know you’ve done a great job playing a bad guy when the audience boos. To play the polar opposite of who you are is extremely difficult but also a challenge in making the audience really believe something. When I played Billy Bigelow in a West End production of Carousel which was a very dark take on the show, when I would come out of the theater people didn’t want to meet me because they believed I was this abusive guy. The best compliment I would get wasn’t that my voice was good, or my interpretation of the soliloquy was good, but that I was a nice person, nothing at all like that guy.

So what’s the process to remove those characters from yourself at the end of the day?

It depends on the role, sometimes you take a little time to flush it out. In the beginning it can be difficult to shake it off, but once you’ve been doing the show for a while it’s like a costume, you put it on and you take it off. Once you get to that place it’s easy to step away.

(With racism in America) It’s clear that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Click To Tweet

The first moment we meet Reverend Dan we see him try to stop a guy who’s hanging a Confederate flag from a pole. It’s so insane that things like that are happening today too. Does playing someone dark help you understand the people who are in power right now in America for instance?

Absolutely, wholeheartedly. Hate is a learned trait, you’re not born hating, and the one thing I’ve come to find, not to be political, is that I always try to put myself in other people’s shoes. I grew up in the church, but the church I grew up in was open, welcoming and understanding. I was taught Christianity and Catholicism were meant to be about love, inclusion, caring and welcoming, but as many things in life it can be manipulated and used in a perverted way so it becomes hate-filled and exclusive. I’ve always been the kid who stood up to bullies, even if sometimes that meant I ended up being beaten up. I’ve never dealt well with injustice, so playing Dan, who is a flawed character but not a bad man, made me reflect on the following, I see Dave Droxler the phenomenal actor who plays like six different, nasty Southern characters, and he’s brilliant in encapsulating a lot of what exists in our modern society.

I did an interview the other day with a Monsignor who does a radio show here and we spoke about how people don’t realize that when you say things like “the African American community should get over slavery” and so on, if you really think about it, it wasn’t until 1971 when the Freedom Act was actually put into play, so anyone who is 45 or 46 in the African American community are actually the first generation of Black Americans to be born technically free, where they can drink at any water fountain. That’s insane! When you think about the aspect that my parents lived in that age, who were teenagers when Martin Luther King was marching, those are the same people who are now in power, writing laws. That age bracket in the South and other parts of the US were taught about hatred and they’re the people writing the rules of law. I’m not surprised when I look back and see where we are now and why. I see a change coming in America and they can’t stop it, so it comes with desperation, they want to hold on to these beliefs of superiority. When you look at our show and see how it deals with racism it’s clear that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

You did Finian’s Rainbow right before Sweetee, both shows deal with intolerance. Have you found that you’re drawn to shows with social messages or is this just a coincidence?

A little of both, I’m drawn to shows with that aspect in them. I auditioned for the revival of Finian’s in 2010 and I was surprised by how much the script resonated with modern days, when I did it at the Irish Rep it was amazing how prevalent it was in our society. It fits exactly to what’s happening right now. Sweetee came and it made me see how many new shows are dealing with this, in the theatre business things come back for reasons, often unintended. Finian’s Rainbow didn’t come back because of what was happening, but when it came back it blew up and became this wonderful oasis that gave people release and understanding.

Are there any musicals or art pieces that give you comfort in the chaos of our world?

I’m a big Ingrid Michaelson fan, she sings as if she’s singing right to me, her way of singing really touches me. The other thing I do to relax when I feel the world is coming apart from the seams, is I watch a lot of YouTube videos of heroes of mine giving speeches. When I truly am disheartened when I see how Americans are treating each other and all the vitriol, I watch people like Jane Elliott who created the Blue Eye/Brown Eye test, or Roland Martin, people who I admire.

What was your favorite thing about doing The Fantasticks?

Everything, I was part of the show from 2012-2014 and went back and forth doing it, my favorite thing in it was the people, to this day I haven’t done a show I enjoyed doing as much and with those people. It was like being a family and it’s known for being like that, a small family atmosphere where nasty people are weeded out. Genuinely I tell friends I could’ve done that show forever, it’s the perfect musical, it touches people in ways I’d never seen, it’s a show that’s very dear to my heart.

Speaking about perfect musicals, what’s on your Stephen Sondheim bucket list in terms of shows of his you’d like to do and your favorite of his songs?

So easy, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. I’ve come so close to doing that show and it was one of the first roles I ever learned, I listened to the soundtrack from beginning to end and became so taken by the darkness of the role, but also the heartbreak and I’ve always wanted to play the role for the moment where he truly is broken, when the last shred of his genuine humanity and kindness are ripped from him, when the Judge escapes. Sondheim’s score as he says “I had him”! Dreams, my friend, dreams!

For more on Sweetee click here.

Connected Post:

Review: Sweetee

By Erin Kahn

“Dream big,” could be the tagline for Sweetee: a new musical by Gail Kriegel set for a limited premiere engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center. Directed by Tony nominee and two-time Emmy Award winner Patricia Birch, Sweetee tells the story of a free-thinking reverend and his band of orphans in the Depression-era South. “Band” isn’t figurative; Reverend Dan’s orphans are young musicians, initially playing jazzed up hymns but eventually transitioning to New Orleans style swing numbers. Following his impulse to “dream big,” Reverend Dan takes his group on the road, trying to show the world that children from the streets can rise above their backgrounds. The first step is shaking free of backwoods Claytonville, where the reverend’s white congregation objects to his “almost all colored orphanage band.” Another step is enlisting Sweetee: a young street singer with the vocal talent to propel the little band to stardom. Something like a cross between School of Rock and Dreamgirls in the 1930s and ’40s South, Sweetee is a fun, heart-warming musical with a score drawn from Dixieland style jazz. Instruments include everything from a washboard and kazoo to a saxophone and violin. A …Read more

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