J. Bernard Calloway is currently making his Broadway debut in Memphis as "Delray", a role which he originated while the show was still running at La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle 5th Ave Theater. His face and name may still be unknown to some, but that is soon to change. As "Delray", Calloway lights up the stage, bringing a mix of both humor and realism to the show while also doing his part to bring down the house each night with his outstanding vocals.
BWW: So this is your Broadway debut, correct?
Calloway: Yes! Yes it is.
Tell me a little bit about what this experience has been like for you; when I was at the show there was an overwhelming standing ovation. I can't imagine how good that must feel.
Calloway: Well, that first night, not the previews, but that opening night, when everything was official, that's when it hit me. That standing ovation you were a part of. It was like, wow, I'm on Broadway, and this is my debut in a role I originated. And I got chills, it was like... I hadn't felt that feeling since I played football in college. I don't know if you've been to a football game before, when all those people are screaming and you score a touchdown and they all go wild for you, it shakes your being. It shakes you up. The same thing happened that night, I was like, wow, this is what it is going to be like. Because you know, we've been working on Memphis since 2003. And for Chad (Kimball), Montego (Glover), and others, they have all been on Broadway before in some shape or fashion. But for me, it was like, wow, this is what this is supposed to be like, this is it. This is all the hard work paying off, and it's here in New York on the Great White Way. It was really unbelievable.
It was amazing to be in the audience and feel that burst of energy and enthusiasm for the show. It was downright touching.
Calloway: (Laughs) Well, this is a night in-night out thing now, and I am not boasting! I'm not trying to get a big head about it but I've never been in a show where every night people get up on their feet, singing with you, cheering you on. You go out and you sign autographs and you meet with the fans, and people are crying! People are there who are seeing a Broadway show for the first time and they are just elated by what they have seen. I can't ask for anything more than that. I feel like I've done my job.
So you've been working on this part, as you mentioned, for quite a while. How does it feel to make your Broadway debut in a role you originated?
Calloway: You know, that goes to show you what kind of loyalty Joe DiPietro and David Bryan have; when you collaborate with people like that who have the policy of "if it ain't broke don't fix it', that type of mantra, then you are lucky. People usually look for the money, they want to make sure the seats are filled so they bring in the big stars when they get onto Broadway, but with this group of people loyalty is prominent. Because I am sure, no, I am positive that if they wanted to get a celebrity for my part they could have. But they kept the people who originated the show- speaking of myself, Montego (Glover), Chad (Kimball), Derrick (Baskin), and James (Monroe Iglehart). To have that type of loyalty in this type of business that can be very cut throat, it means a lot to me. Not having the credits, just a lot of regional credits and believing in the gifts that were given to me, that's all I can ask for. So when the director called me and told me that he couldn't see anyone else playing it but me... oh my god, I melted like butter. Imagine me, a big guy, just about to cry! I was so touched.
What are your thoughts on two white guys from New Jersey writing a show about early African American rhythm and blues music from Memphis?
Calloway: Well, you know, not only black folks know about black folks' history! Them writing this tells you something good about historical knowledge across all fronts. When you are involved in the industry that Joe and David are, you are very particular about particulates. David's a rock and roll guy; worldwide millions of people know his and Joe's work. When you are in an industry like that and you have been doing it for so many years, the details are important to research and keep true, and they did that. They brought in all kinds of information and sources about that time and era, from the war to the music. Just because they are Jewish or white, doesn't mean that they don't know their information. What means the most is that it was important for them to research and know our history in America, and what that entails. A lot of kids these days in this generation have no idea what happened or what went on back then. So to give them this tid-bit about a white disc jockey who was the first to play ‘race music', it's an important story to recreate and tell. Music is about music, not about race. Music is the universal language that brings people together or tears them apart. I mean, Big Mama Thornton originally did "Hound Dog," but then Elvis made it famous. And because he was singing it then everyone listened to it. Joe and David are giving homage back to a part of history and our part in it, "our" meaning the American culture; it reads volumes to me as an African American performer and as an African American man. It helps me to understand my heritage as well.