James Monroe Iglehart is a Bay Area guy, through and through.
Of course, he has made his living on Broadway, one of only five cast members who stayed on for the entire run of “Memphis,” a show that was born at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. But before the Great White Way beckoned, Iglehart was doing his thing as part of the show choir at Mount Eden High School in Hayward, class of 1992.
Iglehart, quite frankly, is all East Bay – born at Kaiser Hospital in Hayward, graduated from California State University, Hayward when that was its actual name, and still maintains residence with his wife in a Hayward apartment. So when the opportunity to work at home for the holidays popped up, he jumped at the chance.
Iglehart will be tackling one of his favorite roles starting tonight, playing the virtuous runaway slave Jim in the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of “Big River,” a role he has played previously, and one that allows him to utilize his vast talents.
“First and foremost, I love the music, it just encompasses the whole story and is fun to sing,” said Iglehart. “It’s a role written for a baritone guy, which is my ‘real voice,’ as my mom likes to call it.”
That real voice was evident in his youth. And the day he graduated with his degree in theatre, he drove out to Sacramento for an opportunity very rare to fresh-faced theatre grads – a six-month contract on a major national tour.
Iglehart landed a swing role, understudying eight roles altogether, in the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II production of “Show Boat.” Even better was the fact that the tour was directed by legendary stage director Harold Prince, which allowed Iglehart to access Prince’s assistant, in addition to cast members willing to help the new kid on the block.
“It was the most amazing, hardest and educational thing I ever got,” said Iglehart. “That six months was an intensive master class on what to do on stage.”
While that master class certainly gave him plenty of knowledge working with seasoned theatre professionals, there was another master class waiting. Unfortunately, this one was all about what actors do when they aren’t working.
“That’s when reality hit,” said Iglehart. “I got to appreciate what a real actor goes through. I had no appreciation for money and spent it all.”
Iglehart spent the next eight years working as an actor in the Bay Area in places such as the now defunct American Musical Theatre of San Jose and TheatreWorks. And it was the work with the latter that landed him a life changing opportunity.
“Memphis” got its start during TheatreWorks’ 2003-2004 season, moved to San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2008, and then made its Broadway debut in 2009, finally closing this past August, a run of 1,166 performances.
Iglehart played the role of Bobby, a gentle giant of a janitor who finds his voice through fast-lipped disc jockey Huey Calhoun. Iglehart’s Bobby is a role full of joy and swagger, stealing many scenes with gentle balletic precision and a big booming voice.
While Iglehart accomplished things with “Memphis” that many actors dream of, he also felt that when the final show came, it was time for new, professional challenges.
“You always want to do more,” said Iglehart. “For those of us in the show for eight years, we were sad to see it go, but we knew it was going to close, and we were ready to move on.
“We earned four Tonys, we filmed the show for a DVD on PBS, we did the soundtrack, and shows like ‘The View,’ ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘The Today Show.’ It was fantastic, we did everything on this show you could possibly do. This show gave us great careers, and I appreciate what the show did for me.”
The closing of “Memphis” gave Iglehart the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time at home, where he lives with his wife, also a CSU Hayward grad who graduated with the final class before the name changed to CSU East Bay. The opportunity to perform a show near family and friends has been great, and working on a show as timeless as “Big River” allows him to showcase one of the great pieces of American literature. Now 38-years-old, there is a layer to this recent interpretation that did not exist in his prior portrayal of Jim.
“I did the show before, I knew it well, but I wasn’t the age where I was mature enough,” said Iglehart. “Jim is like an uncle, a big brother and I now feel like I understand what Twain was trying to get across with Jim. He is one of the few African-American characters that aren’t portrayed in a negative fashion.
“The wants and needs of Jim are just important as Huck’s wants and needs. Jim cares for his people the way Huck cares for his. That’s what’s important about Huck Finn the book.”
JAMES MONROE IGLEHART, IN HIS OWN WORDS
On how he has seen musical theatre change over the years…
“When Broadway musicals started, they became Broadway musicals from popular music. Now you have people like Tom Kitt putting popular music in a show, and there are now different music styles in shows such as hip-hop, salsa, rock music, country and folk. People who like music now have a place to go. You go see things like “Bring it On” and there is hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues in the same show. Broadway has always been pop, and now it’s opening back up the way it’s supposed to be.”
On the evolution of roles for people of color…
“We as people need to write stuff for ourselves. There are more shows opening up for us. We see a lot of talent now, and it acceptable to do non-traditional casting. It will always be a struggle, depending on who writes the show. But there are definitely more roles nowadays then there were years ago.”
On what he must have when he is back in the Bay Area…
“Three places I have to hit up – La Piñata on Mission Boulevard, Dairy Belle Freeze on Tennyson Road, and Round Table Pizza.”
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “Big River”
Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman
Adapted from the novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
Directed by Robert Kelley
Dec. 1st – Dec. 30th
The Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Tickets range from $31 – $73
For tickets and more information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org
James Monroe Iglehart official website