“Who knew you could be on top of the world and still feel beneath it?” is hauntingly delivered by James Harkness as Paul Williams in the Broadway production of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. A jukebox musical with music and lyrics by The Temptations and book by Dominique Morisseau, this moving production directed by Des McAnuff, is destined for a long run at the recently refurbished Imperial Theatre. www.ainttooproudmusical.com
Harkness and fellow co-stars Derrick Baskin (Otis Williams), Ephraim Sikes (David Ruffin), Jelani Remy (Eddie Kendricks), and Jawan M. Jackson (Melvin Franklin), create a seamless and talented example of ensemble acting. But to single out James, there’s a moment in the second act when he walks downstage and there’s something in his physicality that is so subtle and organic that it hits the audience in the gut with, Oh my God, something’s wrong, seriously wrong with Paul. Congratulations James, it was a sublime moment of acting. I feel that it’s his character and his fate that secures the emotional depth and heart of this musical.
Harkness is what the theatre world calls a triple threat; he can sing, dance, and act. He’s previously been seen on Broadway in Beautiful, Chicago, Guys and Dolls, The Color Purple, and Aida.
Ain’t Too Proud marks your debut as a principal lead on Broadway; how does that feel?
It took me a while to believe it. For a chunk of this process I was afraid it was going to evaporate into nothingness, that they were only using me as a template for someone better. That is not an “awwww, let me give you a hug” story. It’s truly how I felt. It wasn’t until I signed my physical contract on the first day of rehearsal in NYC did I breathe. I’ve been in this business for 30+ years, 19 of those in New York. About 8 years ago I was told by someone I love that I was too old and it wasn’t going to happen. That I hadn’t taken the right steps, made the right impressions. That I hadn’t done the work. And I began to believe that to be the truth. I am beyond grateful that I was wrong and that I didn’t give up.
The production looks like a grueling show both vocally and physically for you, heck, you have 3 understudies. Have you had to shift your lifestyle to accommodate?
Only vocally, as this is the most singing I’ve done in a show on Broadway. I find myself doing vocal exercises even on my days off or on vacation. As to the physical and emotional side of the work, I try and rest as much as possible. Sleep and hydration for me are the best ways to recharge; incorporating lessons and gym time as well.
Your storyline brings an astonishing depth to the show; how did you research your role?
First thank you, that is very kind. I love playing this role. The first thing I did was Google Paul Williams. Aside from reading things about him and his role within the group as their early choreographer, that is where I learned of his illness. Not the alcoholism as many assume, but his dealing with sickle cell anemia. I did some research on the illness, which informed some of my work. But the bulk of it came from reading a book titled Ain’t Too Proud, from the dramaturgy done in rehearsals, from how the book of the show, masterfully written by Dominique Morisseau, wove Paul’s story amongst the other people, and lastly, words from Shelly Berger and Otis Williams.
Was it challenging for you to create a role based on a real person?
In this case yes, but also no and for similar reasons. Since there is not a lot of footage of Paul as a person, and no interviews audio or visual, I could only go by spoken or written “word of mouth.” I had no guide to his speaking voice or mannerisms outside of performance footage. While that gave me a freedom to create, I was also afraid of improperly portraying a man that so many people knew and was their favorite Tempt, and whose family members are still living. That was put to rest in Berkeley, after Otis Williams’ first viewing of act one. We were all nervous about it! During the run I would look in his direction from time to time and it seemed he never looked in mine. So, after the run, with low confidence, I went to say hello. He was talking to two of our cast members so I waited. In the middle of his conversation he looked up, saw me and said, “Paul!!” with the biggest smile on his face! I almost cried with relief!
What is it about the character of Paul Williams that you love the most?
His heart. Plain and simple.
Are you and Paul similar in any ways?
Yes. We both truly love what we do. Paul loves to sing, dance, and perform, with his whole being. Shelly Berger, the Temptations manager then and now, told me that one of the things that most affected Paul was the deterioration of them as a group, the inner struggles, and all the things that took away from that simple love of it, that started the group. The more fame, the more difficult things became. He was happier when things were simple. I’m similar. While I do enjoy the attention and the perks, when things get in the way of the pure joy of my craft, I hurt.
What was the journey like taking the show from a workshop format to Berkley Rep in California to the Kennedy Center in D.C. before arriving on Broadway?
Long! It’s been a lot of work. That said, for me it was mostly joy. I don’t infer that there were no hard moments, there most certainly were. We lost a couple of people along the way from that initial workshop, one of those was very hard on me as he is one of my best friends. With the creative process everything and everyone flowed in pretty much the same direction, yet there were moments where we didn’t meet eye to eye and we had to work through those moments, or just make them work. To make the show its best, things also changed in the story of the play.
The choreography changed often, vocals were constantly being worked, and my insecurities in that particular area were always being worked. But it was all for the good of the show. We all knew it was a special piece from the get go and we all did the work to make it such. So, every step from workshop to Broadway was needed
I’m assuming your immediate future is connected to the run of Ain’t Too Proud, and from the reaction of the sold-out house the night I saw you, I figure you’ll be doing this show for a big chunk of your life, but do you have any television, film, or theatrical surprises coming up in the pipeline?
I most likely will be with the show for a bit unless, as I like to say, something magical happens. As to TV, film, etc., had I got to this interview earlier I would not have had anything exciting to say, but now I do. I just filmed my first guest spot on a very popular NYC based TV show! I can’t say which one but it’s VERY New York, so you can make your assumptions. It’s a show that theater actors say once you’re on it, you have officially become a New York actor! “Ma, I made it!” I also went to Australia before we started rehearsals for Broadway. I had an opportunity to work with the wildly popular group, The Wiggles! A character was conceived for me and I was flown down to film thirteen episodes that will be released sometime next year. It’s called, wait for it … Le James Café. I’m so very thrilled for it as it was a creative rush to film and write for.
You’re a Handy Award Best Director nominee. Can you elaborate?
Haha, yes! You know of the Handy’s? Well first of all there are a few awards with that title. These started in 1987 by Jay Handleman, a theater critic based out of Sarasota, Florida, which is where I made my directorial debut at the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe with my production of The Color Purple. I’m still so very proud of that! I was not expecting it! I remember I was on Facebook and saw a post my music director put up about his nomination for the show. I had not heard of The Handy’s and was excited for him! In the post he mentioned his happiness for fellow nominees. So, I went online and found the link. As I went through the list I saw his name, two of our actresses names, the show’s name, and then my name…I sat with mouth agape! Not even remotely exaggerating! The directors I was in company with are all well-known, experienced directors. I couldn’t believe it! I had so many emotions about directing the show and it’s “finished” product. There were so many things I wished I had done better when I looked at the footage a few months after it had opened and I was back in Beautiful on Broadway. For me it was very flawed, though I was proud that I had accomplished it. The nomination floored me! Still does. Thank you, Jay!
You’re also an award-winning choreographer, can you tell us more?
Well I preface this with, an award is an award no matter who gives it. I was in The Color Purple on Broadway and I tossed out an idea for a piece for the always wonderful Annual Gypsy Of The Year competition. It was in 2008 and there had been a musician’s strike and there were some tensions in the air. The idea was liked by those who attended the meeting, and they said, “That’s great, so when do we start?” I was taken aback because up to that point our entries into Gypsy or Easter Bonnet competitions had always been collaborative, but things were a bit different this time so I jumped in, went to work creating on my insanely talented company and the Broadway community decided my piece was the winner that year! I was presented the plaque by Rosie Perez and Brian Stokes Mitchell, a moment I will never forget!
Did you have any mentors early in your life?
My favorite one did not enter into my life until I was almost 30. Unbeknownst to him, he had been a part of my life through television and video. Unbeknownst to me he would become someone I would not only know in real life, but who would become a mentor and a true friend. Enter Tiger Martina. He used to dance for Paula Abdul and I used to watch him in her tour videos on repeat. Life moved in such a way that I got to work for him, which led to becoming one of his guinea pigs, then to friendship and mentorship. I’m forever grateful to him. He taught me some hard lessons. He fired me once from a huge job. I had to learn responsibility for myself. It’s not just about being talented, there are a LOT of talented people. Responsibility and work ethic—I learned and am still learning. It never stops. And if it does, then you’re done.
Have you toured much and if so, where has your theatrical life taken you, travel wise?
I have! I love traveling and hope to do a lot more of it. My first professional job, in my mid- twenties, was a concert tour with a big Puerto Rican recording artist. We did all of South America and Mexico, and also with him I had my first performance in New York, at Radio City Music Hall no less! Later in life, with musical theater tours, the travel has been mainly domestic, but I did get to go to Tokyo years back and that was a dream come true! I Love Tokyo! The city, the culture, which though so Americanized is still very much Japanese. I love the food, the fashion, the fact you can escape the city even while in the middle of it. I really want to return and explore more of Japan. Musical theater also took me to another country I’ve wanted to go to since I was very young: Germany. Before I was born my father was stationed there and around my little house we grew up in, in El Paso, TX were mementos of that period. I remember the pictures of lush mountains and old castles and wanted to know where that was. I demanded to know why I wasn’t born then so that I could have gone too! Thankfully my dream was answered with a work trip to Berlin.
If you could speak to “little” James, what advice or words of encouragement would you give him seeing where you are in your life now?
This question was posed to me recently. It’s one we love to use because so many wish we could go back, do it again, and maybe fix what we did wrong or missed. Looking at that question both then and now, I see the impracticality of it. If we actually could speak to our young selves those words would change our journeys. For some I’m sure that would be ideal, but for me, while I am not happy with all the choices I have made, without each step I have taken I would not be sitting in this place right this second, on my living room floor, eating lunch and typing out this interview, for I would not have met you, Arthur, who has provided me such an opportunity to expound upon the opportune moment I find myself in now. So instead, I want to share the qualities I wish I had, or had more of, that I now try to inspire in the younger generation I come into contact with through my career. I would tell (my younger self) to continue to work hard at what you like and love. Learn everything you can about those things and stay open to learning as you never know where knowledge will come from, but if you are receptive it will continue to come. Practice patience. Some things can come quickly, many things take years to develop, and oft times don’t present themselves until you’re ready, and that readiness is rarely determined by you. Life has a way of bringing things to you when it’s time. And lastly, love yourself. Not in an egotistical way, in a genuine way. It’s not as easy as it seems, but as you learn to, the road you travel on in life will be easier, your journey richer. Oh wait, one more thing: find your happiness! Closely akin to loving yourself: doing things, and surrounding yourself with those that make you happy is a valuable key.
Follow James on Instagram: www.instagram.com/harkness.lord.harkness