You’re going to like Jeremy Pope. He’ll likely hug you upon greeting, which is good and great and all, but from there he’ll one-up himself on charm, on genuine enthusiasm for all areas of his life, and on energy, plain and simple. You’re going to root for him, and then you’re going to want to see every production he takes part in, be it Broadway or beyond.
It’s a few weeks before the close of “Choir Boy,” the production in which he currently stars, and he’s doing double duty these days: recording the album for his upcoming show “Ain’t Too Proud” with the cast in the morning, and onstage for “Choir Boy” come night. Today he’s had “a little egg, a little grit” and got in some downtime before he begins preparing to take the stage as Pharus, the lead role he first played in 2013 and has now reprised for the Broadway run of the Tarell Alvin McCraney show.
“Eight o’clock tonight, it’s time to hit it,” he says with a wide smile and palpable energy. “I got people here, so I’ve got to show up and show out for them.”
Pope, 26, grew up in Orlando, Fla., idolizing Whitney Houston; the son of a pastor, his childhood was naturally filled with the church choir, which is where he fell in love with music.
“It was just something that always grabbed me and grabbed ahold of me,” he says. He transitioned to musical theater in high school, and latched onto that as a possible path forward where he could make a living singing.
“I didn’t grow up listening to the soundtrack of ‘Rent’ or things like that, like a lot of kids did. I just knew it was a place where I felt welcomed,” he says of the theater. “When I was in the theater program in high school, that was always the most fun place, and people of all walks of life were there to just be with you for who you were. It was a place where I could bridge the music and the acting together, so it was kind of trial and error for me.”
He moved to New York with dreams of Broadway, but struggled to see a place for himself.
“I think it was hard for me because I didn’t really see a lot of opportunity for me in the long-term,” he says. “A lot of the talks we had in school were like, ‘Where do you see yourself in four to five years? What shows do you want to be a part of?’ We were learning material and I was kind of scrambling for things, being a young black artist. But I also knew that I had told my parents that I would follow through with this. They struggled with the idea of me moving to New York and hustling after this dream, so I knew that I had to complete the program.”
“Choir Boy” premiered in 2013, with Pope in the leading role of Pharus Jonathan Young. The show was written by McCraney, who, between runs, has won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Moonlight.” The story follows a group of young black male students at a boarding school, centered around the gospel choir.
Pope calls the show “a show for me.” It was his first audition out of school, and his first job.
“‘Choir Boy’ allowed me to just explore all realms and colors of myself,” Pope says. “It was healing and helpful for me in 2013 so now bringing it back five years later, I’m aware of the responsibility, and I’m aware of how important the story is for young people out there who need to hear their story. To shed light on a story where we talk about why we fight so hard against homophobia and racism and bigotry, it’s just another reminder of why people need to show up to the theater to see this story, and if anything, walk away with a little empathy towards these young men, these men of color, these queer young men.”
“Choir Boy” will close on Feb 24, and Pope immediately moves to the Imperial Theatre, where he is starring in “Ain’t Too Proud,” a new musical about the life and music of The Temptations (previews begin Feb. 28 with an opening of March 21).
“I actually turned down the show five times before auditioning,” Pope says. “Only because as an artist, I want to do stories that have some meaning and some truth and some gut and some honest truths to it, and at the time they were just telling me, ‘It’s about The Temptations,’ and I’m like, ‘jukebox music, I’m not trying to jump in a machine where it’s just a money-maker.’”
Once he took the meeting, though, he was convinced by the fact the production tells their story as people, and focuses on their politics as well.
“We get to talk about them as individuals and what they were struggling with, and why there was only one original Temptation left standing,” Pope says.
The experience of back-to-back Broadway roles has left Pope rather speechless.
‘I can’t really find the perfect words for what it feels like and what it means to me to be able to do what I’m doing,” he says. “So much black on Broadway: that alone, period. As I was coming into the theater, there just wasn’t a lot of representation for me at the time. I feel like in these shows, we get to be beautiful and black, and talk about things that ring true to us while also providing healing and entertainment and love for so many individuals out there.”
More from the Eye: