Challenging bullying head-on
Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell performs in SF
by Richard Dodds
Brian Stokes Mitchell, the Tony Award-winning Broadway star, played legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku in a TV movie a dozen years ago, and he's still riding the waves.
"The longer you live, the more you can make sense of the waves as they come along," he said. "You begin to see the patterns, and since you can't stop them, I just think, 'Go for it, world. I'll just do what I do and ride the waves you send.' I've always been kind of Eastern in my philosophies."
But when he says he'll "just do what I do," he sets a high bar for his actions as a performer. "I want people to leave the theater feeling closer to the people they saw the show with, closer to the people in the world," Mitchell said. "I know it's a huge thing to aspire to."
When he was invited to perform with Yale's legendary Whiffenpoofs choral group in a concert billed as A Gala Performance to End Bullying, he was happy to sign on. In the May 13 event at the Palace of Fine Arts, Mitchell will perform one or two songs with the 14-member a cappella choir and half a dozen more songs from his own diverse repertoire that can range from "The Impossible Dream" to "Take the 'A' Train." Presented by the Yale Alumni Association and New Conservatory Theatre Center, and also featuring the Stanford Mendicants, the concert will benefit NCTC's YouthAware program.
While he has chosen the six songs for his solo singing, he couldn't rattle off the titles. "I have so many concerts going on that I can't keep them straight," he said from the New York home he shares with wife Allyson Tucker and their 8-year-old son Ellington.
It was the birth of Ellington that led Mitchell to start seeking out concert appearances and TV guest spots (including playing one of Rachel's two gay dads on Glee this season) rather than continue his ascent as a sought-after Broadway leading man. He had had long runs in Ragtime and the revivals of Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate, which won him his Tony in 2000, but the weekly eight-performance grind did not suit his concept of fatherhood.
"You end up having no life outside of the show, because you have to save yourself for the performance," he said. "There were weeks sometimes in which I wouldn't talk to my wife, communicating with notes and sign language. She called it my 'monk mode.' And when my son was born, I knew I wanted to be able to laugh and scream and make silly noises, and not have to worry about doing a show that night."
He's open to returning to Broadway in a new show that excites him, though his only dream revival at the moment is Sweeney Todd. "Limited run" are magic words to Mitchell now, and he was back on Broadway in 2010 for three months in the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
(Photo: Courtesy Fox Television)
"I find three months is the place where you kind of hit the wall in a show, where it goes from being fun to being hard."
Mitchell, 54, was doing professional theater in San Diego even before he was out of high school. The family had moved around a lot before that, as his father's job as a civilian engineer took him to Navy bases both Stateside and abroad. There was nothing but support from his parents as he pursued a performing career, at least partly because "they could see how audiences were reacting to what I did."
Since his upcoming SF appearance is tied into the anti-bullying movement, he talked about his own experiences with bullying as a school kid. Actually, they were non-experiences. "I was usually the tallest kid in the class, and people don't pick on big people, so I was lucky. I also had kind of a charming personality. I liked people, and people seemed to like me back."
The arts have always been a haven for societal outsiders, he said, because an artist's basic goal is "to find the truth in things, find what we all have in common, and find where we connect. I think it's why people love going to the theater, because it connects to your own humanity and to those around you. It really is a tribal experience."
Playing the African-American musician Coalhouse Walker in the musical Ragtime has come closest of all his roles to achieving the communion he seeks with audiences. He received hundreds of notes and letters from audience members telling him how the show personally affected them, including a long hand-written letter from a white Southern kid who realized the internalized racism he had been carrying. "That's one letter I will never forget," Mitchell said.
There was another Ragtime experience that shook Mitchell to his core. Both he and the show had been favored to win Tony Awards, and when they didn't, he and the company were "bummed out" over their losses, and the actors had to struggle to reignite their performances in the first days after the awards ceremony.
"Then I had a personal epiphany when this story came out about an African-American gentleman in Texas who was tied to the back of a car and was dragged so far and so long that his body basically just fell apart." That was the case of James Byrd, Jr., whose drawn-out death came at the hands of three men with white-supremacist associations.
"I read that article and thought, 'That's why we're doing this show. We're not doing it for a Tony Award,' which suddenly seemed so trivial. I actually felt ashamed that I was disappointed that I didn't get a Tony Award, but I felt relief because it finally put everything into perspective."
A Gala Performance to End Bullying with Yale's Whiffenpoofs and Brian Stokes Mitchell will take place at 5 p.m., May 13, at the Palace of Fine Arts. Tickets are $50-$125, available at www.ayayale.tix.com or (800) 595-4849.