With almost three decades in the theater industry, Jay Ellis has helped bring forth a number of productions across the country.
The 32-year-old Toledo, Ohio native has directed and performed in shows including “America’s Got Talent”, Broadway and the historical Carnegie Hall, among others.
Most recently, he created and directed the fully improvised hip-hop musical “BARS”, produced by Playhouse Square & Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory.
On Tuesday, he and the cast of Broadway’s Freestyle Love Supreme, a freestyle, improvisational, hip-hop comedy show, will stop in Charlotte until Sunday on its national tour.
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Every performance brings the unexpected, as the performers take suggestions from the audience and spin them into a rap and full-length musical numbers.
QCity Metro spoke with Ellis on his career and his upcoming visit to the Queen City.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
When and what inspired you to get into theatre?
In kindergarten, I was always singing in our school gospel choir. We had a short little play that we put on where Jesus gives a man who’s unable to walk the power to walk again. And I played the man who couldn’t walk.
My mom always tells the story and there’s a video to prove it. I took off running and I kept running and running and running all the way around the whole stage until they had to grab me and tell me to stop. That’s when the theater bug first bit me and I continued through my adolescence doing theater.
I started working professionally on shows during my freshman year of college at Baldwin Wallace University. After graduating, I went on to New York City and got a little lucky in the beginning, getting booked for my first shows.
You’ve been both the director and actor. What is that transition like?
I feel like every actor should spend time as a director and every director should spend time on stage as an actor. I really think that breaches the gap of communication and gives an understanding.
I definitely have learned that, as a director, it’s made me a better actor for sure. I’ve directed a number of shows and it just opened up a window of insight and vision of empathy and understanding of my own craft.
What role have you played that has been your favorite and most challenging?
The most challenging is a role I’m playing right now, which is myself in Freestyle Love Supreme. We kind of play ourselves on a heightened level. We play our super hero version, our alter ego version, our Sasha Fierce to Beyoncé, if you will. I think that as an actor and as a human, the ongoing learning and the ongoing struggle is knowing who you are, knowing how you want to express that and understanding it, competently. You must execute while being empathetic to the change and growth that’s happening inside of you.
You made your Broadway debut with Freestyle Love Supreme last fall. What has performing the play been like since then?
When they had the fall Broadway run come back around, I was working in the academy and was reached out to by casting agent Tommy Kale, who invited me to come and jam with the group. That turned into being cast to being invited to make my Broadway debut with the crew.
I’ve developed a comfort level with being myself on stage. I find it as my gift and my journey and my ministry, if you will, to be able to share who I am and what I believe to be my truth with as many people that will listen in hopes that they can feel connected to someone that they can relate to.
Being able to do that vulnerably on stage is daunting and sometimes not an easy task, but it’s such a beautiful blessing. And I’m so grateful to be able to do that because it’s where I feel the most complete.
You’ve coached, directed and performed for a number of productions. How have these experiences helped you grow as a professional in the industry?
When you’re working with others and helping and instructing them, it’s a beautiful opportunity to use that as a mirror for yourself and think of how you can apply that to your own work.
It’s also a rewarding feeling to watch people excel. On the director, facilitator and teacher side of things, it’s amazing. To be able to watch other people’s passion and dream come into fruition on stage, that’s a boost.
You are involved in Dance, Acting, Rap, Improvisation, which one is your favorite and why?
Rap freestyle and hip hop. It’s my favorite. It’s by far what I love and what I prefer. I love it all, but that’s my heartbeat. That’s what I grew up listening to in the womb. Growing up in the nineties, some of my first words as a child were hip hop lyrics. I was born in 1990. Hip hop is the song of my generation. It’s the song of my soul. And being able to be in a show like this is the complete intersection of who I am as an artist and the emphasis of what music I was raised on.
What’s next for your theatre?
I’m sticking around the Freestyle Love Supreme community for awhile. We have some cool opportunities coming up. So stay looking out for nice, cool things to be announced. And this show has been working since 2003 and it’s not going anywhere. I want to see how far I can keep this wheel turning.
What do you look forward to most about next week’s performance in Charlotte?
I look forward to it being in a heavily Black, predominant community. To see black and brown faces, in the audience and community with such a rich, beautiful, thriving, urban environment that look like me is beautiful.
I didn’t see a lot of those opportunities for Black actors when I would go see a show as a kid. I looked forward to being a voice that people aren’t typically heard from in the Broadway community. This week, I look forward to learning from the community of Charlotte and eat some good food.
Tickets can be purchased via Blumenthal Performing Art’s website.