Giving You Something You Can Feel
By George Kevin Jordan
It is two days after the premiere of the Broadway revival of Once On This Island, a musical about people, and the stories they tell themselves to survive, thrive, and live. The show is set on an island besieged by storms, and ripe with battles about identity and love. A young girl, Ti Moune, through the help of her family and the Gods, figures out who she is and what she is supposed to do with her life. She gets her purpose.
Alex Newell is a person who always knew their gift, and their purpose in life. Now it’s time to figure out who “they” are.
Choosing a Starbuck in Times Square is about a cliché a choice of meeting spaces as choosing chicken at Popeye’s or beer in Milwaukee. This reporter passed so many swank hotel bars, with barely enough light to see the bartenders. There were restaurants setback along 49th or 51st streets which might serve as great scenery to chew on if the subject being interviewed was boring.
But no place is left ordinary when Alex Newell invades the space. The young performer’s confidence panache, or dare I say SWAG, invades the room, fills the space long before the body arrives. There is no boredom here.
At first glance, draped in the standard New York uniform of gray and black, Newell may appear to blend in, but once they laugh, and that bellowing guffaw rolls up to the rafters, everyone is paying attention.
The hair is pre-fabbed out hanging over one side like a bob. No makeup on Newell’s face, which looks youthful and cherub like in the same breath.
You lob the first question expecting a Hollywood response, something poignant and humble. But in response to how are you, Newell responds, “I am exhausted.”
There is a lack of conceit, of pretense in the statement. It’s not like you ask someone how they’re doing and they give you the “blessed and highly favored” routine even though their house may have just burned to the ground.
“I haven’t had a break in two weeks. I made a full thanksgiving meal and then on Monday I had a photoshoot, a gala and a voice lesson,” Newell says. “I have sang “Mama will Provide” more times than I want to in my life in a span of two weeks.”
Before you get on your high horse and weigh in on the bellyaching of the privileged set please note Newell is not complaining. The star is simply stating facts. It doesn’t mean that when Newell grabs their fan and crown and steps out on that stage that they won’t kill that song. Once on stage the delivery is magical no matter how tired the performer.
In fact, on the Saturday before the opening, Newell who plays the Asaka, the goddess who is sent to protect the main character, belts out the song like it was a church revival.
The Alex Newell sound, of course, is part church singing, part theater bravado, part flirtation, part seduction, all big band and brassy, and unapologetically overwhelming. Tears flow when the vibrations hit ears. Emotion well up and erupt when Newell mixes and blends voices with other actors. The result is cathartic.
Critics are beaming about Newell’s performance. Of course Newell slaying the role was no surprise to Michael Arden, director of the show.
“Quite simply put, I cast Alex because he was the best,” Arden said via email. “We had met a few years ago in Los Angeles and when I mentioned to him I was directing Once On This Island he said without hesitation, ‘I wanna be the Lilias White role.’ I laughed at the time, but remembered this when it came time to cast the show. I wanted to show that Gods aren’t bound by our earthly ideas of them. Many gay men are both mother and father to children in many cultures, and I wanted to celebrate that and provide a platform for Alex to showcase his tremendous talents.”
Merle Dandridge, who plays Papa Ge in the musical as well as Grace Greenleaf, in the OWN television hit Greenleaf, spoke of Newell’s talent and professionalism and hinted at all the fun they were having on and off stage.
“Alex is a master class in knowing all the rules and techniques, then breaking them in the most thrilling way you could imagine,” Dandridge says in an email response from a SWERV inquiry. “Lots of giggles, dorky clapping, and jumping up and down from me when Alex Newell goes off.”
The idea of such a huge voice ever being silenced is intriguing. You ask has it ever happened. After all, the world is full of Black voices that are sometimes silenced. Has anyone dared to ask Newell to tone it down.
“I don’t need to be anywhere where I am not wanted,” Newell says. “No one would ever ask. That would be like saying ‘Aretha shut up,’ it won’t happen. She will just start singing louder.”
Newell ponders the idea a bit more then adds: “Everyone is just so thrilled (not being a braggart) with large voices they get a rush from it; endorphins are released especially when the person is having fun while doing it. And I’ve never been in a small room.
Such confidence on such a young face is jarring. To know Newell’s story is to know confidence is part of the job.
“I’m an only child whose father died at six, whose mother worked the night shift for as long as I can remember so I had to grow up really fast,” Newell says of his upbringing in Lynn, Massachusetts. “People say I have an old soul and I say ‘yeah I do.’ The confidence is really survival.”
One person’s survival story is wish fulfillment for another person. Newell was just 17 when he auditioned to be a part of the Glee Project, a reality show competition that offered the opportunity to guest star on Fox’s hit show of the same name. What Hollywood didn’t count on was the pure talent emanating from Newell. Even though he was runner-up in the competition, Newell landed a guest spot on the show.He took the role of Wade “Unique” Adams, a male to female transgender student. Newell was quickly promoted from guest star, to recurring character, to full time cast member.
It’s the type of once in a life time opportunity to be apart of something you were a fan of for so long.
“It’s fucking stupid, that’s what it is,” Newell says, as star, reporter and PR wrangler all forget their assumed roles in the Starbucks and bust a gut.
“I still don’t ever think it actually happened until I go back and see clips,” Newell says. “They say you shouldn’t meet your idol or be on your favorite television show ever in life. Because you look at it and say ‘this is so fun’ and then you get there and you’re like ‘Oh my God’ this is so much work and I hate my life. I used to get sick of going to work. But it made me a better person.”
Newell confesses that television roles and the celebrity status that come with it was not on the actor’s radar. Newell was on a straight career line from Church to Broadway. Don’t all performers want to be on television and the big screen?
“I don’t know,” Newell says with a hunch of their shoulders. “There weren’t people who looked like me. And there still aren’t. I’m the person that looks like me on television.”
It is hard to believe even now the limited amount of Black and LGBTQ performers on the screen. Some people tend to conflate the movie Moonlight with this era of Black and LGBTQ characters displayed in movies and movies. The fact is, representation is still scarce.
Newell, however, adds a little hope to the mix.
“It’s different now because it’s me and then there’s Titus,” Newell says.
Newell is referring to Tituss Burgess the stand out actor on the Netflix Original Series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Both are larger than life performers with wonderful hard edges around their humor.
“Between him (Burgess) and Billy Porter (If you don’t know him your google is broke) and Ken Page, those three made me want to be on broadway,” Newell says.
Here is a person who knew what to do but didn’t have people who represented them on the screen, so they became that person, along the way breaking stereotypes about masculinity, Blackness, queerness and talent. He was also adored by a large swath of the LGBTQ community.
It’s the idea of support that conjured up a previous interview I had with Newell when we talked about support from the LGBTQ community. It made me wonder if Newell felt that same support from the Black or Black and queer communities.
“Sometimes people forget that “I’m Black and I don’t know how — I actually don’t know why that is,” Newell says and then clucks his tongue in that way our sisters are checking you, or our LGBTQ peeps are clocking you. “I think I have been supported by the LGBT community because I was on Glee. But when it comes to the Black community. I am such a taboo subject.”
“Christianity was enforced on Black people therefore a majority of Blacks are Christians,” Newell says. “They are used to being set in the ways of the Bible especially in the south where my family is from. It’s harder for them to attach themselves to me.”
Newell admits that this distance between himself and some Blacks and whites too has presented unique challenges in their career.
“It’s harder because the Black entertainment business is so separate from Hollywood,” Newell says. “You see it all the time. It’s also just about the craft of it all and how separated it is. It’s either Black or Black-ish. Where it’s just enough Black in there that it’s PC enough for the non-Black people to accept it. If it’s too Black they’re not going to get their numbers. You’re either Tyler Perry or Shonda Rhimes. Empire and Star or Black-ish. It’s that fine line of where your numbers are.”
“I sit here and I’ve been told I wasn’t Black enough by an actual Black person and by a white person. Where is this coming from?” Newell asks.
Newell also understands the very particular ilk that he represents.
“As a gay Black man who is a trans advocate who is gender nonconforming I put myself in such a niche market that not everyone is going to love me,” Newell says, adding that it was their niche appeal which may have limited him from getting more attention and promotion on Glee. I wasn’t the pretty Black gay or the skinny gay. I had to make my way. It gets lonely.”
To navigate Hollywood being Black, or being Black and queer, is a constant game of identity maneuvering, shape shifting, ignoring, compartmentalizing and praying. You step up for a role and you don’t know if you are too “something” for it, too Black, too tall, too big, too small, too white, too too too…
When asked what are the alternatives to the seemingly cutthroat decision making process associated with getting a role Newell answers, “I have to create my own.”
You ask if Newell likes to write, and their response is “no,” followed by “I’m lazy.” You point out the lunacy of someone claiming to be lazy when they do a Broadway musical eight days a week, record songs (Newell is signed to Atlantic Records) for an upcoming album and listen to countless songs and attend a slew of engagements to promote their various projects. If all that work is deemed laziness what on earth will they want to be doing in five years.
“Sleeping,” Newell says without a bit of irony.