By Amy J. Parrent
“The Book of Mormon” makes another stop in Detroit this summer, part of a long tour for the company. And for the cast, it’s true that life on the road makes for an interesting bonding experience.
“You become family in all the ways people are family,” said Stanley Wayne Mathis, who plays Mafala. He joked, “Maybe not always good. But you’re eating, living, praying together.”
Mathis’ Broadway credits include the original casts of “The Lion King,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” the 1999 reworking of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” revivals of “Wonderful Town” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” as well as the original and touring company of “Jelly’s Last Jam.”
“I haven’t toured since ‘Jelly’s’ in ’94,” said Mathis. “But this tour has been a joy.”
Flint native ensemble member Trevon Davis enthusiastically agreed. “Touring life is amazing, and at same time you miss the stability of home. But the pros outweigh the cons. We get to see the best of cities,” he said, recalling recent excursions to the Mammoth Caves and distillery tours while playing Louisville. “You see so many beautiful theaters and meet so many interesting people.”
And he’s learned how to fit his life into a suitcase. “If you can have 50 pounds, I have it down to 48 or 49 pounds,” he said.
And then there’s the show itself. Davis recalls “crying-laughing” the first time he saw it. And now, from the stage, he said sometimes people in the audience “make us laugh from hearing them laugh.”
Davis, who said his family “are all the way Flint born and raised,” described his pathway to success as “a crazy story, kind of a blessed journey. I grew up singing in church. My family is very musical.”
He performed in high school plays, but at college in Atlanta he majored in computer information systems. He joined the marching band and then a music fraternity, which led him back to singing. “I hadn’t done it for awhile, but people said, ‘You can really sing.'”
He made appearances on MTV’s “Making the Band,” followed by BET’s “Sunday Best,” where he finished in the Top Seven in Season One. More than a year later, remembered from his TV gigs, he got a call about auditioning for a revival of “Dreamgirls.” Still based in Georgia, he said, “I went from Atlanta to New York, Atlanta to New York.
“I got fired from my day job, because I had to stay over in New York.” But he got the part. “It’s OK to lose a job and gain a career,” he said. “You have to chase your passion, what you love.”
“Dreamgirls” was followed by his Broadway debut in a “Porgy and Bess” revival, where he was awed to be working with the likes of Audra McDonald and David Alan Grier. While still working in “Porgy” he began auditioning for “Mormon.” “I went through all the callbacks and didn’t hear anything,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s the actor’s life.'”
Months later his agent touched base, asking if he’d like to be a vacation swing. He joked, “It’d been so long, I could’ve had a new career by then.”
The holiday swing work rapidly led to filling in for a sick actor on tour, and then a full-time gig.
Meanwhile, you could call Mathis an overnight success – if the night was a decade-and-a-half long. He said his childhood home life was “rather chaotic,” and credits teachers at his schools in Washington, D.C. with seeing a potential in him, finding “anything to keep me out of trouble and off the streets – musicals, glee club, drama club.”
After college in D.C., his first professional gig was at The Wagon Wheel Playhouse in Illinois. And he was hooked. “I thought, come hell or high water I’d go to New York,” he said. “Most of my friends had already moved there.”
He got two minimum-wage jobs, and when he finally left for N.Y.C., he had a grand total of $350 in his pocket.
He had done children’s theater in D.C. and hooked into a company at NYU. After almost another decade of dues-paying, he began grabbing Broadway credits. He’s grateful to people like choreographer/director Kathleen Marshall, with whom he’s worked multiple times. “I’ve had a standing relationship with her.” But when it comes to networking, he said, “There’s a talent to doing it. I’m not necessarily a people person who goes to all the parties. That’s probably why it did take me so long.”
Yet another slightly shy actor who can let loose on stage? Yes. “People have problems marrying my two personalities,” he said.
Mathis has played Africans many times, including a production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and interacted with many South African performers in “Lion King,” an experience he said “transformed us all.” During his vacation from “Jelly’s Last Jam,” he also took a memorable trip to Ghana. And he now finds a parallel to his character and his real-life situation. “I’m the oldest cast member, and I play the village elder in the show,” he said, adding that he’s kind of the dad among the cast.
As for Davis, the Detroit stop means a good visit with his real-life relatives. He’ll forgo the hotel room and commute from Flint, staying in the room he grew up in, “with my grandma right down the street,” he said. “I can have my career and perform, but also be so close to family.”
And every night he’ll be with his other family, the cast of “Mormon,” delivering the outlandish, irreverently off-color show with its sudden “ah-hah moments,” as Davis calls them. “There’s such a big message that the comedy brings out,” he said.
“There’s an insight that the humor itself has,” said Mathis, “About the human condition, how we maneuver and get through this thing we call life. It’s extraordinary.”
SHOW DETAILS: “The Book of Mormon” Broadway in Detroit presents “The Book of Mormon” at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday, July 1-13; no performance July 4. Tickets: $34-95. For information: 313-237-SING or http://www.broadwayindetroit.com.