A Seat At the Table // by David Aron Damane
David Aron Damane brings his authentic self to the role of J.J. Brown in
THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN.
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.” That’s what I WANTED to say to my agent when he sent me the appointment to audition for the role of J.J. Brown in Transport Group’s production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t want the part, nor because I was busy (even though I actually was)—it was because this was to be the first New York revival of the show since it closed 58 years ago, and in no way did I believe a relatively anonymous African-American actor would truly be considered to co-star in this classic piece of the musical theatre canon; in a role based on the real-life Irish James Joseph Brown, husband of the legendary real-life Irish-American Margaret Tobin Brown.
For most of American musical theatre history, roles not specifically written for or about minorities or people with disabilities were like the edge of the visible universe—we could see them, but we knew we’d never be able to visit. It turns out, however, that The Universe knew something I didn’t! I was working on another project at the time, giving me the perfect excuse to decline—I WAS busy at the time I was given to audition, after all. Imagine my surprise when my agent got back to me saying that the creative team was renting another audition space an hour earlier that morning to accommodate those of us who couldn’t make our initial appointments. I was stuck! So even though singing for employment at 9:30 a.m. is less than ideal, I figured I’d just go and consider this a chance to finally meet director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall and writer Dick Scanlan. To make a long story short, “The Call” came soon after—I was floored and spent the next two and a half months having the time of my life.
The job of an actor is surprisingly simple—just tell the story. It also happens to be the toughest part of acting: ridding yourself of decades of artifice, superficiality, assumptions, prejudices, phobias, and insecurities. Our production was tagged with the more apt moniker of a “revisal” rather than a revival, and that turned out to be the saving grace for me. So little of the original text and story survived from 1960 that any weight of audience expectation was lifted. I didn’t have the shadow of Harve Presnell (who originated the role of Molly’s husband both on Broadway and in the immortalized film version starring Debbie Reynolds) looming over me. I was free to fully inhabit MY face, MY muscular brown body, MY dramatic baritone voice. What I have to offer is my uniqueness, my individuality—that’s what makes my interpretation of any character uniquely mine. I can submerge myself within a character all I wish, but that vision will always manifest itself to the audience through the prism of who I am, how I look, how I sound.
Of course none of it would have succeeded, especially in a role so inextricably tied to another character/performer, without that ephemeral, intangible thing called chemistry. And luckily our Molly Brown, Beth Malone, and I had a ton of it, and pretty much from day one. Perhaps I shouldn’t attribute it to luck—after all, the show didn’t cast itself! Kathleen Marshall is a genius for many reasons, and I’d like to think she “knew” how well we would gel.
“A rising tide lifts all boats.” That should be obvious, but it isn’t, especially in our business. For the company of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, however, it wasn’t even a question. EVERYONE rose, and everyone reaped the rewards of that rising—we were all better because everyone else was better. Combine that with love and passion for what we do, mix in producers who supported us well above and beyond what was necessary, and you have an alchemy whose result was one of the highlights of my career and my life.
The point? Well, I suppose it’s the first rule of life: Just show up! Give The Universe the opportunity to say no. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, and you never know—The Universe just MIGHT know something you don’t.
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