By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
Jamal James is literally waiting in the wings to take the stage in the national tour of “The Color Purple” — he unfortunately can’t go on unless something befalls one of the three male actors he’s following.
James, 30, a Centreville, Va. native, is one of two male swings in the musical, playing at the Kennedy Center now through Aug. 26. A swing is a cast member who’s ready at a moment’s notice to take over for any ensemble member who’s sick, vacationing, auditioning for another musical, recovering from an injury or otherwise unavailable.
“You hope that the reasons you go on are for safe reasons, not unsafe reasons,” James told the AFRO in a telephone interview.
The difference between a swing and an understudy is that an understudy watches the show onstage, while a swing views it offstage.
In James’ case, he’s covering three men in the chorus: “Guard,” “Ol’ Mister” and “Pa.” His job is knowing all of their harmonies and melodies, remaining aware of any changes in the performance and monitoring what multiple people are doing for the same song.
If he’s called on to perform, James has to get the chemistry right and ensure the show runs just as smoothly as if the person he replaced was still there.
“It’s still mind numbing because you’re not getting enough rehearsal time and you’re not getting enough stage time either,” James said. “It’s like jumping into the water without a life vest and you’re just told to swim.”
As of this writing, James had yet to take the stage at the Kennedy Center for the musical but when the it hit Chicago three weeks ago, he jumped in to play “Guard,” making his “The Color Purple” debut.
This year marks the second time “The Color Purple,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker and the Oscar-nominated film directed by Steven Spielberg, has played the Kennedy Center. In the summer of 2009, the Kennedy Center housed the musical’s original Broadway tour starring Fantasia Barrino.
The current production is entirely new and scored the 2016 Tony Award for Best Musical revival. The North American tour opened October 2017 in Schenectady, NY and ends its run at the Kennedy Center where it’s been playing since July 31.
“The Color Purple,” a story about a woman who overcomes abusive men in the rural South, embraces sisterhood and finds herself in the process, marks the most prominent project James has taken on — it’s his first national tour and his first time as a swing.
James fell into acting as an introverted boy in middle school when he decided to take an acting class for an easy A. He remembers the power of delivering a monologue in a way that made the audience laugh and couldn’t shake that feeling.
“For me being a quiet kid, that was something I don’t think I was very used to doing.” James said.
After high school, James graduated from Emory & Henry College with a BFA in acting and a minor in creative writing and literature.
He moved to New York City in 2013 to pursue his acting career — he recently joined the Screen Actors Guild and has appeared in several Off-Broadway plays and musicals. Earlier this year, he appeared in two episodes of “Gotham,” a television series based on “Batman.” James played Palden, leader of a renegade group.
Interestingly, James took a year off in 2015 to work at Disney World as a Jedi knight — his job was showing little kids how to be Jedi masters, a dream come true for the rabid “Star Wars” fan.
“I could say at the end of my lifetime that I’ve been a Jedi,” James said. “It was a really great, rejuvenating time for me.”
Once “The Color Purple” tour ends, the entire cast will head to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey to open its new season with the musical on Sept. 26. That special engagement lasts through Oct. 21.
James doesn’t have any immediate plans after the musical, but his ultimate goal is taking Hollywood or Broadway by storm.
“I can see myself producing and writing and acting if God gives me the opportunity to do so,” James said, adding that the key for him is finding consistent challenges that make him happy.
“I don’t know where life will take me, but as long as I’m doing those two things, I’ll get to where I’m supposed to be.”