Anthony Wayne left the security of performing in multiple Broadway shows in New York for a project of passion.
That passion was sharing the story of Sylvester James, Jr., better known simply as “Sylvester.” An artist that tested the bounds of fashion and sexuality, Sylvester was an icon in the genre of disco, dominating the scene from the early 1970’s to the later 1980’s. He died of AIDS in 1988, but not before creating a lasting legacy in music and advocacy, a Herculean figure in the gay community.
Wayne and director Kendrell Bowman took some time to talk about Sylvester’s impact, the toughest thing about doing the show and what it means to be returning to San Francisco, where the show performed a year ago.
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David John Chavez: You had been able to carve out a career on Broadway in three productions but left to pursue this production full time. What gave you the confidence to leave Broadway in order to share the story of Sylvester, a singer-songwriter known for his daunting stage presence and piercing falsetto?
Anthony Wayne: Having the opportunity to perform on Broadway is no easy feat. It took me some years to make my Broadway Debut after the National and International tours that I did prior. Once I settled down in NYC and found myself in the ensemble of some three incredible Broadway shows, I found myself wanting to create something that was meaningful and impactful of my own. When Kendrell and I met, he heard me singing and was the one who encouraged me to step out of the ensemble and believe in myself. Seeing how the impact of Sylvester’s story inspired the people we would perform the show for gave me even more confidence to know that what we were doing was the right move and the right direction. In order to be all in, I had to make a decision to leave my most recent Broadway show (“PIPPIN”) while it was still running and have faith that the choice I was making was the right one and years later, I am so grateful to know that it was. Of course, it’s scary to break out of something comfortable to do things all on your own, but once you do, you realize that it’s the most liberating experience and I’m grateful for it all.
DJC: What was your first experience with Sylvester’s music and story, and how did you come to the conclusion that you wanted to share his story and impact?
AW: I was watching an episode of this new TV Series (at the time; 2010) called UnSung on TVOne. By that time, I had written a few cabaret shows of my own and had a structure of how a concert style show should be created. When I saw his story, I was so moved by the power of his resilience that I bought his greatest hits album that day. Weeks later I was just singing all his songs and driving down to Virginia talking to a friend about how someone should do something to honor the trailblazer that he was…as I’m screaming my face off down the highway singing “Do You Wanna Funk.” (LOL!) I figured since he had such an impact on me from what I saw, imagine how many people could be inspired to live in their truth just like he did if the knew what he went through to be the man he was. There in laid the foundation.
DJC: Your show is a celebration of Sylvester’s artistry and seems to be a blast. When looking at how to share Sylvester’s legacy, which contains amazing highs and devastating lows, why did you make the choice of a Sylvester experience rather than a more straightforward storytelling on the stage?
AW: Yes, honey! We party and have a great, dancing in the aisles time at #MIGHTYREAL, now!! “Celebration” is an understatement. Initially, the show was structured as a concert night of Sylvester’s music on July 29th, 2012 at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC. From that night, the “experience” of the show has been undeniable. Over the years, as the show has grown and developed, we realize that the strength in this show is to bring people along on the journey of his life from his own mouth. To have the actual person speak to the people, sing to the people, enjoy the people and live with the people on stage makes people feel “MIGHTY REAL”. It makes them feel like they are a part of a movement as opposed to looking into the window from the outside. This “experience” incorporates all that people want from a good time while educating those who don’t know about the choices to make that will make you live your life to the fullest now.
DJC: As a performer, what has been the hardest thing to connect in terms of your performance and the authenticity to what it must have been like to be a part of a Sylvester concert?
AW: Sylvester had an ease and a banter with the audience which made everyone who came to see him in concert feel like they were spending time with a friend they’ve known for years. I am not Sylvester, so initially, when people come to the show, they don’t know how to react. They don’t know what they’re in for. Sylvester sang in a specific range in a specific way and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to emulate that. From the first song, I have a job to make the entire audience feel comfortable and have a banter with them that’s reminiscent of the man himself. Depending on the audience, it takes a minute, but by the second song, they are totally enraptured. I’m happy that I’m a vessel to bring his essence alive for those who have missed him or who hadn’t seen him at all.
DJC: Sylvester had a strong background in gospel music. Was this your personal musical background as well?
AW: Oh, chile. Similarly. It’s funny. I’m a country boy from Virginia who was raised in the Baptist church of Norfolk, Virginia called First Baptist Church – Bute Street. I was in the youth choir, children’s church, the young adult choir, all of that. Music has always been in my life since I was 5. I loved the stage and realized it when my mother, Elaine Gary Green, place me into a Children’s Theater called CenterStage, Inc. with Margie Day-Walker. This theater company laid the foundation for me to have music in my life. I started with public speaking, tap and singing lessons while playing the piano as well. The latter was so tedious and annoying but I needed it and I’m happy I had it. It all trained my ear to do and hear exactly what I need to in order to get the right keys and pitches for what I’m doing now. I, also, went to Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. I graduated with my BFA in Music Theater with a minor in Voice and Piano, so having that structure has allowed me to be the well-rounded musician that I am today. With Gospel roots and a structured upbringing, I can see and hear how Sylvester’s music was inspired by the church melodically and emotionally. That shined through his music and it still shines bright today.
DJC: Being able to perform the show in San Francisco, have you been able to communicate with people who were able to experience Sylvester in those early ’70’s/late ’80’s in any capacity? What have you learned from those primary sources?
AW and Kendrell Bowman: Yes, we both have had SO MANY INCREDIBLE stories shared to us (individually and together) from those who knew Sylvester, spent time with him, dated him, sang with him and remember the impact that he had on their lives to this day. Being in San Francisco is sort of a homecoming of sorts. Last year, when we came the first time, people didn’t know what to think of us because we’re from the East Coast with a show about someone they knew from here. Now, we are welcomed with open arms because his story is told from such a respectful and genuine place that San Francisco audiences appreciate.
DJC: How was each of you able to work together and come up with a vision for the look and feel of the show? And how were you able to overcome any creative differences to execute the show you both wanted to see?
KB: It was organic for both of us to create the look of the show. We knew Sylvester was part of the 70’s and 80’s, so we wanted our audiences to come to the show and feel like they were transformed into a Disco Club. As soon as you walk into the theater, we have Disco music playing. The lighting and feel of the theater is as if you walked right into a club. There were no creative differences. We bounced ideas around and it grew from there.
DJC: The late 1970’s saw the impact of Sylvester in music and Harvey Milk in politics, both gigantic icons of gay communities in San Francisco and beyond. This show is giving many an opportunity to experience that impact first hand. What do you feel is Sylvester’s greatest impact, and what has fascinated you most about this journey you have been on while sharing Sylvester’s story?
AW: Sylvester’s greatest impact is how his music is so infectious and timeless. Those who danced in the disco in the late 70’s and enjoyed his music in the 80’s can still move to the song as if it was created today. What’s most fascinating to me is seeing how young people today, even though we weren’t able to experience him live, respect the man he was, remember the man he was and can be enraptured by the music as if it was created today as well. The message that you can be who you want to be regardless of any situation with perseverance and determination rings true through all of Sylvester’s music. On this journey, we see that people are encouraged and inspired by that and it let me know that we are doing something right; encouraging people to be their best selves as we evolve as young men ourselves. For us both, it’s an everyday learning experience that we treasure each time the show begins and ends. We are thrilled so share this experience with the San Francisco audiences and can’t wait to bring this to Broadway in 2017.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Brava Theater Center presents “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical”
Written and performed by Anthony Wayne
Directed by Kendrell Bowman
Through March 13th
Brava Theater Center
2781 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets range from $35 – $100
For ticket, call (415) 641-7657 or visit www.brava.org