Brian Stokes Mitchell
Brian Stokes Mitchell is known as "the last leading man" because of his significant Broadway roles, including "Ragtime," "Kiss Me Kate," and his current part in "Shuffle Along." But how he's helped and inspired his fellow actors and actresses has created perhaps an even greater legacy.
With his voice and stage presence, it's hard to imagine Brian Stokes Mitchell doing anything else. The truth is there never really was a Plan B. "I've always been attracted to things like theoretical physics and things like that," the actor said. "But that's a crappy Plan B, too. I mean, how many theoretical physicists are there in the world that make great livings?"
Science's loss has been the theater's gain. He is known to everyone on Broadway as "Stokes."
In 2002, The New York Times called him "the last leading man," thanks to roles in shows like "Man of La Mancha," "Ragtime," and "Kiss Me Kate," for which he won a Tony. "You can relax a little bit because you think, 'What are the chances of getting nominated!'" Mitchell said. "You have to be in a great role, in a great show." The vast amount of respect for Mitchell on Broadway stems only in part from what happens on stage.
Since 2004, he's served as president and then board chairman of the Actors Fund. The Fund operates the Actors Home in New Jersey, and assists people in the entertainment industry dealing with personal and family crises. "They will proceed to tell me some story about how the actors fund helped them with insurance, or health care, or addiction, or they need a new hip, or something happened during Hurricane Sandy andthey got a new instrument," Mitchell said. For this work, Mitchell won this year's Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for significant contributions to charitable and humanitarian causes.
Mitchell's most poignant reflection on the Tony's involves a year when he didn't win. In 1998, he was nominated for his performance in "Ragtime," the powerful story of ethnic and racial relations in America at the beginning of the 20th Century. The show won fewer awards than anticipated. There was disappointment. But then Mitchell read a news story about three men in Texas who were charged with and eventually convicted of chaining a black man to a truck and dragging him to his death. "I was so ashamed that, it was like, 'Oh my God, about any of the Tony awards stuff became very unimportant,'" Mitchell said. "And at that moment I went, 'Oh, this is why we are here. This is why. This is much more important than a Tony award or any of that kind of stuff. This is the reason we are here. That's what the show was about.'"
"Ragtime" ran for two years. But the lessons learned during the run seem to hold a special place for Mitchell, including a letter from a fan. "'Last week I came to see your show 'Ragtime' and I realized when I left the theater that I had been a racist all my life and didn't even know it,'" Mitchell said, recalling the letter. "And it's like, oh my God.
That's why. That's the real reason — to get to do that kind of stuff. You know? To get to do a show like that, a role like that. And that's what 'Shuffle Along' is too."
"Shuffle Along" is about the making of a 1921 show of the same name. It was a rarity for its time, a successful Broadway musical written, produced, and acted entirely by African-Americans. It paved the way for other black musicals, but has been largely lost to history. "It's a privilege to be able to bring these people to the fore and to let an audience discover them every single night," Mitchell said. "It's an honor. These are the people whose shoulders that we stand on."
There is another inspiring role model in Brian Stokes Mitchell's life. "My father was a Tuskegee airman," said Mitchell. The Tuskegee Airmen were the celebrated squadron of black military pilots who fought in World War II and trained in Alabama. "He taught radio code there in 1940 when they started," Mitchell recalled. "And he always used to tell stories of being in the army." Because his father had a civilian engineering job in the navy, Mitchell spent much of his childhood in Guam and the Philippines. "It also prepared me for a life in the theater, because living on a Navy base particularly I would make friends with people. You would have this great friendship, and then they would be gone the next year," Mitchell explained. "So you get very close to people and then somebody new comes in and so you make new friends. And that's very much what it's like doing a show."
Mitchell went to high school in San Diego and quickly caught the acting bug. "I played Conrad Birdie in 'Bye Bye Birdie,'" Mitchell reminisced. "And I remember hearing everybody screaming, all these girls in the audience." "I left home at 17 and immediately was working as an actor. I never waited tables. I only made my living as an actor. And I never even had to borrow money from my parents," said the San Diego-native. "Who gets to say that in the world as an actor? And I'm not bragging about that; I'm saying thank you."
When his son was born in 2004, Mitchell wanted to pull back from the eight shows a week Broadway life for a bit. So, he began performing in concert. "The schedule is much easier. I can make same money I make on Broadway doing 20, 30 shows a year," he said. "And I can sing what I want, I can say what I want, I can do what I want."
The moments remembered not only happen on stage, but occasionally backstage. For example, after a performance of "Ragtime," Mitchell met the actor who paved the way for so many other African-Americans on stage and screen: Sidney Poitier. "'You're on that stage with me every night and you have been such an inspiration to me. You know, I just think of you, and all of the films that you've done, and what you've been through and everything, and I just want to say thank you for the inspiration that you've given me,'" said Mitchell, recalling what Poitier said to him. Poitier then hugged him. "Oh my God, it was this kind of sob that came out of him, and I'll never forget that moment," Mitchell said.
Now 58, Brian Stokes Mitchell — yes, Stokes — is himself an inspiration to a younger generation of performers. Part of his message? Awards are nice, but the joy is in the work. "Once you get a Tony award, now what? OK, I got my Tony award, but now what? You know, I still gotta pay my rent, still gotta clean my toilet, I still gotta go to the grocery store. I still have to change my kid's diaper," said Mitchell. "Life goes on, and I still have to get work."
Before he got to Broadway, Mitchell already was a TV success, including seven ye
ars playing Justin "Jackpot" Johnson on "Trapper John, M.D." For a time he was known as Brian Mitchell, but there was another performer and a football player named Brian Mitchell. So, in the late 1990s, while performing "Ragtime," he became Brian Stokes Mitchell, a name now recognizable to theater and music lovers everywhere.