What would Broadway’s main man be if he wasn’t an artist? Brian Stokes Mitchell says he would probably be a theoretical physicist.
“I’m a big science nerd,” Mitchell said. “They are the group of esoteric and imaginative scientists.”
As a child, Mitchell thought he would go into aviation or marine biology. Instead, he became an award-winning actor and singer.
He is also a community activist. Since 2004, he has served as Chairman of the Board of the Entertainment Workers Fund, formerly known as the Actor’s Fund. Under his leadership, the fund grew from $2 million a year on average at 1,500 people to $26 million during the pandemic at 18,000 workers.
He recently teamed up with Audra McDonald, Billy Porter and others to form Black Theater United.
He will perform at the Wharton Center in East Lansing at 8 a.m. September 23.
How Brian Stokes Mitchell became a performer
His original career dreams may have stemmed from his father, who was an early Tuskegee aviator and worked for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
However, acting discovered Mitchell.
He did “Godspell” with the Globe Theater and performed in a song and dance company called The Bright Side from age 15. They did three to six shows a week and he was paid $15 per show.
One job led to another, eventually bringing him to Los Angeles where he landed roles in ‘Roots: The Next Generation’ and a seven-year stint on ‘Trapper John MD’, the start of many television roles . In 1988 he was on Broadway where he would rise to fame in ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’, ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’, ‘Ragtime’ (Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical), ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ (Tony win for best actor in a musical), “King Hedley II” (Tony nomination), “Man of La Mancha” (Tony nomination), “Sweeney Todd” and “South Pacific”.
“It wasn’t like I remembered that conscious choice,” Mitchell said. “It has to be, I guess that’s what I do with my life because all of these opportunities are coming up and they’re all great opportunities.”
He says he remained curious about the world, a place he describes as amazing, miraculous and joyful even if it is also horrifying, terrifying and mind-numbing at times. He brings that curiosity to his live shows, like the upcoming one at the Wharton Center.
“How do we respond to the different stimuli presented to us? Mitchell asked. “It’s the fascinating and fun part of life and it’s where I can put my energy, my passion and my focus when I play. It’s life and all the things that happen – crazy and not, wonderful and not – and putting that in a show in a way that people can relate to it and digest it and walk out of the theater feeling empowered , cheerful and happy. That’s my push when I play now.
Serenade of essential workers
At the start of the pandemic, Mitchell sang “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha” out of his fifth-floor window overlooking Broadway every day as essential workers traveled to hospitals and other jobs, facing to what was then the unknown. The song rang out as he sang of fighting the unstoppable enemy, enduring unbearable grief, and running where the brave dare not go.
“Every lyric of that song lent itself to (what essential workers were doing),” Mitchell said. “That’s why it’s the only song I sang for the two and a half months I sang it from my window.”
There was a moment when he almost stopped. There were over 1,000 people listening to her sing. He feared they were clapping for him and not for essential workers.
“It’s my act of gratitude to these essential workers for singing the song, but I started to feel like people were coming together to hear me sing,” Mitchell said.
But then a neighbor stopped him to express his gratitude.
“He started getting really emotional and said ‘we’re going out to cheer on all the essential workers, but we’re going out every night to hear you sing. I bring my wife and two sons and it’s the only time in my day that I feel joy,” Mitchell said. “I realized at that moment, that’s why people come together. It’s a moment of joy in all this sadness, chaos, uncertainty and fear. It’s the only time in life when people feel they are not alone, that there is hope. That’s why people love art.
Change the world for the better
After the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Mitchell said Audra McDonald, LaChanze and Schele Williams wanted to translate their anger into action. They started calling their friends. Soon, 19 founding members will form Black Theater United with the aim of making a difference.
“We’re interested in change, but change by working with people,” Mitchell said. “Some people want to change by challenging and making demands – and all of that is important. … We’re the group that’s sort of the old guard, trying to bring everyone together and have conversations in the room.
Their work has focused on bringing together theater owners, producers, creatives, directors, writers, music directors and unions to negotiate and solve problems together. Mitchell said it was made easier because they all knew each other and worked together.
“It was easy for us to be friendly, because we’re in a room with our friends,” Mitchell said. “It’s easier to solve problems when everyone is sitting at the table together. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s respect each other and try to solve these countless problems that we have. What we are working on now is more equality, diversity and equity in theatre. We try to do it in a positive and collaborative way, because that’s how Broadway works best.
Specialized in personal exhibitions
Although Mitchell has a lengthy resume of Broadway, TV, film and music credits, he says it’s individual gigs like the one at the Wharton Center that he loves the most. He still has the joys of performing in front of a live audience, but he doesn’t have to do eight shows a week. Moreover, he can personalize each show.
“If there’s something going on in the world that I want to talk about or sing about, I can put it on at the last minute,” Mitchell said. “I do the show with a trio and I have many, many choices. I design a show with an arc and it’s different for every audience.
He said he was consciously working to connect with the audience.
“When I do a show, it’s like a big church — I want the audience to feel better when they leave than they did when they walked in,” Mitchell said. “For me, it is a sacred space. It’s a place of worship in a sense when you’re together. I want an audience leaving to feel levitated, to feel lighter, to feel more connected to other audience members and to the rest of the world.
It’s part of what fuels his passion for performing – and staves off any regrets that he’s not a theoretical physicist. As scientists think about other universes and quarks, he thinks about what it’s like to be another person.
“You are so lucky to be an artist,” Mitchell said. “I can do something that makes people happy, that gives them hope. I have an amazing job. I can do that every night when I go on stage.
If you are going to
What: An Evening with Brian Stokes Mitchell
When: 8 p.m. Friday, September 23
Where: Cobb Great Hall at the Wharton Center
Tickets: From $39 at whartoncenter.com