DERRICK DAVIS ON THE POINT OF NO RETURN
Does art mimic life, or does life mimic art? Generations have explored this question as it pertains to society, culture, and emotional expression. In 2020, however, the Phantom of the Opera’s reclusive lifestyle and modest face gear reach a new level of relevance. For a behind the scenes look at theatre, human connection, and face masks, Luxe Kurves interviewed Derrick Davis, the first Black Phantom of the Opera to go on National Tour.
How difficult was it for you to break into the business? Do you have any advice for aspiring actors?
I think everybody’s journey into the business is unique to that person. For me, it was challenging. It was a lot of perseverance and work. It was not that “snap to success” that currently social media, the media at large, and stories people tell may lead you to think is the reality of becoming a performer.
I had to work really hard, audition a lot, and have a lot of rejection. However, that’s all part of the growing experience I think. If I had any advice to give to someone who’s aspiring to get into anything it’s that rejection for a certain opportunity is not rejection at large. If it’s really in your heart to do it, you have to continue to work, work, work really hard. You have to value every experience, whether it affords you an opportunity or declines to give you an opportunity. Let them be fuel to the fire of growth.
Do popular misconceptions about the rise to success and theatre lifestyle affect performers?
Once you start to attempt to get into the business, you realize very quickly that this narrative is not reality. That’s not the way it happens for anybody. Even for people who have a quick rise to success, there is a lot of hardship and a lot of learning that has to happen. As soon as you come to that realization, there’s a shift that happens, and you start to move in that direction. There could also be a shift that doesn’t happen, and you don’t go any further, essentially.
You said that being the first Black Phantom on National Tour means you need excellence in every corner. How do you cope with all the pressure that comes with trailblazing?
I definitely keep my audience and I keep the necessary work in the forefront of my mind. When it gets hard, I remind myself that of course it’s hard! This is work that needs to be done, and it’s undoing a lot of preconceived notions with regards to people of color in entertainment and what they bring to the table. There were two men of color prior to me who had the honor of playing the role, which really speaks to the show’s desire to move forward. At the same time, how it took thirty plus years for three men of color to play this role is beyond me.
However, in playing the role when I did, it was during the Trump administration. When traveling the country, by and large, there were so many people who were ready for a person of color to play the role. From my personal observation of the country as a whole, from going city to city and playing a role that was not traditionally played by a person of color, I expected people to hate it. Once it got started, I was overwhelmed by the acceptance, the love, and the hope that people had for the opportunity that I stepped into.
I think this country is much more ready to change than some media outlets would have us believe. That does not negate the fact that we still have a lot of work to do. I think that if we can emphasize the fact that even when people stand on a different side of things, it still can help us move the work forward.
Right after another divisive election, we’re all talking about unity. In an earlier interview. You talked about how Phantom brings people together. How do art, and specifically, The Phantom of the Opera help us see each other?
Specifically, when you’re speaking about musical theatre, there is something almost spiritual that happens when people sit in a room with thousands or even hundreds of people and the lights go down. There’s something in the psyche of the being that tells you you’re free to experience this as if you’re the only person in the room. That’s why people freely laugh or spontaneously burst into tears. I think that’s one barrier we break when we’re in a theatre.
Beyond that, when speaking to Phantom, the characters, whether people know it consciously or unconsciously, are a reflection of different emotions and human characteristics existing in us all.
Particularly speaking to the Phantom himself, he’s just an individual experiencing unrequited love. He wants humanity to see him before they see the external parts of him that he wants to hide. Who doesn’t have something that they’re trying to hide from society? Some people think they’re a little too heavy, some people think they’re too short, some people think their skin color is not as acceptable as others . We can go on and on.
At the end of the day, Andrew Lloyd Webber was a genius in that his writing captured humanity’s flaws and humanity’s ailments, spiritual and soulful. When you’re sitting in that moment as an audience member in the dark, when it’s just you and the stage, you feel as if all of who you are is being portrayed and dealt with in front of you. It’s really cathartic, and it brings everybody together on a very human level.
You’ve played Billy Bigelow, Scar, and the Phantom of the Opera, which are some pretty dark roles. Do you think playing them has helped you confront your own dark parts and be more centered in yourself?
I think those dark parts exist in all of us. Most of us have the wherewithal and capacity to keep them at bay. We can and process them without exploding, but that wouldn’t make for very good storytelling.
I do feel like it’s very cathartic for me to allow those parts to scream forth in me. Again, I think that really speaks to why people gravitate to and have strong reactions to what they’re seeing. It’s almost as if, by watching it, they’re allowing themselves to scream in those places. Morally, it just isn’t right for you to feel some sort of way about somebody and then put a noose around their neck and hang them. That’s not good. We just don’t do that. These things are so sensational, but they really speak to the emotions and the levels of emotions we feel as humans.
When you embody these characters, how do you get back into a happier, healthier zone?
People don’t realize that getting into character is important, but getting out of character is ten times more important. I have a very specific regimen when I’m in these roles. Fifteen minutes before the show, no one is allowed to come into my dressing room because I’m really allowing myself to fall into the character completely. The work of getting into character is really done in the rehearsal process and the exposition of the character. That’s done hours and hours on top of themselves during the rehearsal process. Once you get to the performance, you can fall into character in fifteen minutes, if you’ve done the work.
To get out of the character, after the show, it’s just the makeup artist and me taking off the makeup. Then the makeup artist leaves, and I take a shower. I take a really warm, hot shower, and I allow it to kind of wash off the character. I let all of it go and let it out of my muscles.
When you’re experiencing all of these really strong emotions as a character, your body doesn’t know you’re actually not feeling them. The reactions, like the sweating, and the tensing of the muscles, are from the body reacting to all those emotional upheavals. You really have to do the work, almost therapeutically, to get yourself out of that. Then you go outside, and you see the audience members and things like that. That really pulls you into being a human again.
You have also played Martin Luther King Jr. Has this role taught you anything special about the relevance of the Civil Rights Movement to this day?
Oddly enough, I had to work harder to come out of that one. At the end of the run, I literally had to shave my head and my face. I had to take everything off because it really is too close to the reality of today.
What it absolutely taught me is that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything kind of repeats itself and puts on a different outfit. The Civil Rights movement that existed then is completely echoed right now. It just reminds me we have so much work to do.
One positive is that, in doing the timeline research of his life, King could have arguably been living, if not for his assassination, for the majority of my life. That speaks to how much work we have accomplished as well. So many of the things that we think about the Civil Rights movement back then feel so removed from our reality today. In actuality, they’re not even a full generation removed. We’ve done a lot of work, but the work still continues for sure.
What was Broadway at the Drive In like, and how do you think the pandemic will affect your personal theater career as well as theater itself?
Broadway at Radial Park was a Godsend, so thank you so much to the Durst group and to Jeremy Shepherd. It was a great experience. It was wonderful being able to explore and give art, but it was also very different performing a stage concert version of that character.
The audiences were so receptive. They were so grateful for a live experience albeit in cars or in benches outside. I know that theatre will never be exactly like what it was ever again. I think eventually we’ll get back to the place where we can have in person theatre in close proximity, especially when the vaccine comes out. However, we have learned so much that we would be foolish not to implement certain things like temperature checks. We can let that stick and let that stay for the safety of the performers and for the audience members.
Right now, many people still think it is too inconvenient to wear a face mask. In Phantom, you had some heavy duty masks and prosthetics. Can you describe this and put things into perspective? Do you have any messages regarding masks?
First of all, please don’t come to me and tell me that you don’t want to wear a mask! Eight times a week for four hours at a clip I had to wear, not just a mask, but from a half an hour prior to the show I wear a prosthetic. For the entire show, my head and face are covered in a very heavy plastic, with only a sixth of my face exposed to air. You know that your head is like the barometer for your body, so the temperature just continually increases. Then, on top of that, you have a three piece wool suit. On top of that, you have wigs and hats. Then, on top of that, a cape. While you’re wearing all that you’re running around in character. You’re carrying people while there’s fire all around you. Are you kidding me? Don’t tell me you can’t wear a face mask!
You may not like change, but once you embrace that this is a part of our norm for now, it doesn’t become that big of a deal. I have a couple of them that I carry all the time. I have the black one, and then I have a fashionable one. It’s a chance to be fashionable.
Just embrace the doggone thing! Put the mask on, so we can get out of this situation and go back to the life we’re so desperately clawing for. That’s my suggestion. Please don’t tell me you’re not going to wear a mask!
You can find Davis on his website, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can see him play Martin Luther King Jr. at Opera Carolina in spring 2021. Until then, stay hopeful, practice compassion, and wear a mask. It’s all we ask of you!