For actor-vocalist Brian Stokes Mitchell, life is full
PITTSFIELD — Ask Brian Stokes Mitchell what appeals to him most in his line of work and he will say, without missing a beat, "I like people who march to the beat of their own drum."
His favorite right now is Grammy Award-winning 24-year-old London vocalist-multiintrumentalist Jacob Collier, who, Mitchell says, "can do everything." But Mitchell is no slouch himself when it comes to marching to one's own drum. In a career spanning nearly five decades, the multi-Tony Award-winning star has fashioned a hugely successful career on Broadway, film, television and the concert stage. He acts, sings, composes, arranges, conducts, plays piano, orchestrates music, produces. He's performed with Reba McIntire, The Muppets, and conductors John Williams, Marvin Hamlisch, Gustavo Dudamel, Keith Lockhart, Michael Tilson Thomas. He has performed at The White House for Presidents Clinton and Obama. In 2007, he appeared in an all-Gershwin evening at Tanglewood with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops, and the late Marin Mazzie with whom he co-starred in the 1999 Broadway revival of "Kiss Me, Kate," that earned him his first Tony. (In 2016 he was awarded his second Tony — the Isabelle Stevenson Award for his work with The Actors Fund. He also was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame that year).
He has survived COVID-19. He tested positive for coronavirus in early April, "It was as bad as you can get without having to be admitted to the hospital," he said by telephone from the Upper West Side New York apartment he shares with his wife, Allyson, and their 16-year-old son, Ellington.
By the end of April, he was joining hundreds of other New Yorkers in a nightly ritual saluting health care workers by singing out from apartment windows and balconies; celebrations of life in the midst of widespread death.
Saturday evening at 8, Mitchell will be singing for an audience of 50 in an open-air tent adjacent to Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre on South Street in a benefit performance for BTG.
A portion of the ticket sales will go to The Actors Fund and to Black Theatre United, a coalition of actors, directors, musicians, writers, technicians, producers and stage management —all members of the Black Theatre Community. Black Theatre United was formed in the wake of the fatal shootings by police of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. and George Floyd in Kenosha, Wisc. to battle racism on Broadway and across the country. Mitchell is one of the group's 21 founding members along with, among others, Audra McDonald, Anna Deveare Smith, LaChanze, Billy Porter, Wendell Pierce, Kenny Leon, Tamara Tunie, and Vanessa Williams.
Kate Maguire, BTG's artistic director and CEO, sees Mitchell as both star and hero — "A star for obvious reasons," she said in an email interview. "A hero because he came back from his own personal battle with COVID-19 to lift others spirits and through his work with both the Actors Fund and now Black Theatre United, he leads us in battles to restore justice and equality."
Saturday will be an evening of what Mitchell calls "some of my favorites," drawn from a repertoire that runs a gamut from Broadway to jazz; opera to country and pop, and what Mitchell calls his "go-to music" — Brazilian. There will be material from his latest solo album, "Plays With Music." And there will be songs from "Godspell," the John-Michael Tebelak/Stephen Schwartz musical that is playing a nearly sold-out run through Sept. 20 in the BTG tent. Mitchell made his professional theater debut at the age of 16 in a production of "Godspell" at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
"I try to customize a show to the place I'm in," he said.
With the national entertainment industry in coronavirus lockdown, you might easily think Mitchell has nothing but time on his hands. Truth is, he's never been busier, he said. He's been in demand, for example, for public service announcements and has just completed one for the USO, which aids U.S. servicemen at home and abroad. "I have to send my part off when we're done. It should be out soon," he said,
And then there is his social and political activism.
He is serving his 16th term as chairman of the board of the Actors Fund, a nationwide human services organization that, according to its mission statement, "provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan."
In addition to his involvement with The Actors Fund and Black Theatre United, Mitchell is deeply involved with ArtsVote, a project of Americans for the Arts Action Fund to get out the vote. Part of that campaign involves maintaining an up-to-date website that tells voters and prospective voters everything they need to know about voting in each of the 50 states.
Mitchell feels he's in a good place in his life right now — literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that there is, he said, a revival of spirit and energy in New York. People are taking advantage of outdoor dining at newly reopened restaurants, and returning to the parks. Parks, in fact, are Mitchell's favorite haunts these days, especially Riverside Park, between Riverside Drive and the Hudson River. "The best way to relax," he said, "is sitting by the Hudson."
He does Tai chi, a meditative Chinese martial art.
If he's learned anything since his bout with COVID-19 it is that "we don't have much control over anything but our own lives," he said. "The further out you go, the less control you have.
"You have to be thoughtful about the choices you make; what we do."
He sleeps pretty well. Nothing keeps him up at night, he said.
"Life is full."
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