Writer Marcus Scott has a kiki with gay power couple Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman of Mighty Real. Don’t worry, no shade was thrown.
Meeting outside of a dimly lit Bouchon Bakery overlooking Central Park, hoards of people whizzing around the Columbus Circle roundabout, Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman sat down at an intimate table glowing with Kodak smiles in lax summer attire. At first sight, Wayne was quite alluring: strapping, yet svelte with a black gold complexion and feline eyes. This contradicted the charming Bowman, whose brawny physique, wide eyes and half moon grin inspired warmth. At this point in time, the two men were enduring the dizzying vertigo affect of showbiz, jotting from dress fitting to band rehearsals and another promotion tour. For all intents and purposes, this was their downtime, the moment of the day where they weren’t waiting to exhale and gorging on caffeine seemed ideal.
Since our meeting in last August, things have certainly changed for Bowman and Wayne, who landed on a September cover of New York’s premier LGBT zine Next. In December, the off-Broadway darling was featured as disco queen Sylvester in the 20th Annual Out 100, listed alongside Gregg Araki, Ellen Page, Zachary Quinto, Neil Patrick Harris and the creators of “Hedwig and The Angry Inch,” Larry Kramer, Terrence McNally and others. Not bad for an actor, whom until last year was waved away as just another chorus boy on the Great White Way known for his small parts in Pippin and Priscilla, the Queen of the Desert. The same could be said of co-director Bowman, who’s detailed vintage costume design has only boasted his clientele that include Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Ashanti and Dawn Richard.
The warm reception at Off-Broadway’s Theatre at St. Clement’s has since inspired the show’s return, which receives a one-night only performance at New York’s Gramercy Theater, January 18, 2015 and a limited engagement at San Francisco’s Brava Theater Center in February 2015. Writer Marcus Scott sat down with the power couple to talk about their hit show Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical (co-produced by Dreamgirls’ Sheryl Lee Ralph) and the man behind the the music and mascara.
Marcus Scott: So, how did this working relationship begin with Mighty Real?
Kendrell Bowman: Well, Anthony watched Unsung on TV One, and he said was inspired by watching it. At first, it was never us saying “let’s do a business venture together.” We’re in a relationship together. But he pitched the idea, and I was like, “No.” He said that he thought that people would like it and I heard him sing in that range. I didn’t know at first because I thought people would get tired of hearing someone sing in falsetto for so long, it could get annoying to be honest.
MS: There seems to be a renaissance of an echelon of queer black artists making their way onto the NYC stage. With shows like Terrell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out, Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, and now Mighty Real, for the first time there are outlets for the mainstream black gay audience. Why do you think this is?
Anthony Wayne: I think now we have the opportunity to be able to do that. I don’t think that was really afforded to us a while ago, you know? Thankfully for people like Sylvester and others that came after him, we are able to do these kinds of things. And not just gay, but we’re black and African-American, and we’re also men and we’re trying to tell a true story from an honest place, just because of who we are. Like now, we have the opportunity to say it, and people are hearing what we’re saying. Terrell is a very good friend of mine and seeing his stories and drive and what he’s been doing, I think we’ve been motivating each other. So, I think that’s what it is too. It’s about all of us, making it one cohesive movement.
MS: Anthony, what is it like getting into character? Both on stage and behind the scenes?
AW: You definitely have to share the load; you definitely have to be a team player. But getting to the part, it takes time. Even though we’ve done the show and continue to do that show, it will always be a continuing work process.
MS: Kendrell, what is it like working behind the scenes on costume design?
KB: For me, it’s all about business. It’s fun because my job is a stylist. I began as a stylist for Atlantic Records for artists. The research was there but it took me a long time, at least seven months to go and recreate these looks for the show. It was looking through all of Sylvester’s videos, speaking to Sylvester’s family, reading through articles, speaking to his friends and finding out the key iconic moments in his career that people will remember. I wanted to be as authentic as possible.
MS: Most people of this generation probably wouldn’t know this, but he began his career as a backup singer and entourage of The Cockettes. Did you use any material from this piece into the show?
KB: Everything. We tell you everything from being a child in the church to him passing away. So anything you could think of, it’s in the show.
AW: The Cockettes, The Disquotays, C.O.G.I.C. Singers, “Ruby Blue”—all of that.
KB: Church songs that he sang from when he was a boy; everything.
Take the leap for more Sylvester insights from Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman.
MS: When Sylvester was on the charts, there was a litany of disco stars like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor heating up radio and the dance floor. Today that music and sensibility has been resurrected in the form of music genres like nu-disco and electro-pop by white recording artists like Ke$ha and Lady Gaga. When creating this piece, did you ever consider if the phrase “Disco is Dead” had any validity to it?
KB: It’s funny that you’re asking this question, we were trying to doing some research. What was it for? Why did we do that?
AW: To find out if people were trying to sample his music. We were trying to see how it paralleled to now.
KB: We were doing an interview for a certain demographic, like Hot 97 and we told them that you should want to interview us because Sylvester is current. So, we had to prove a point and do some research and see what songs, like you said, [compare to] nu-disco and new urban music today and how is it still current. We found out there’s a song by Lil’ Kim on her first album that [contains] a Sylvester sample (referring to “Big Momma Thang” featuring Jay-Z and Lil’ Cease on her double platinum debut, Hard Core. It contains a sample of the disco diva’s “Was It Something I Said.”). I think that with all the Auto-Tune and things starting to get stripped away and people returning to real music and listening to the instrumentation, you can hear disco. Not just in the music, but also in the fashion. Look, everyone today dresses so flashy.
MS: Speaking of “flashy,” Sylvester as we all know, wanted the best of everything, including looks. One of the many controversial subjects in his life is the cosmetic surgery. Sylvester’s relationships involved white men who had a lot of self-loathing. Do you think the plastic work involved?
AW: I think he’s always been concerned with appearances. His body of work has always been about a look or an image.
KB: You have to remember his idols. We did a fabulous playbill. We didn’t do a traditional playbill, we give you a keepsake and you get to learn from that. You can keep it: We have original photos of his family and friends, and in his home you see all of his idols that were on the mantle by the fireplace, and every one was perfect. [We] were speaking to his sister and she said, ever since he was a child, Sylvester would always want to dress and look fabulous and they were encouraging. It was never about society, like nowadays.
MS: We lost a lot of great artists during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s and Sylvester was one of those causalities. How do you feel his legacy lives on?
AW: I think it lives on in his music and his drive and perseverance to be himself through any situation. Even up to the end when he was at Gay [Freedom] Parade [in the Castro in 1988], he was in wheelchair saying “This is me and this is who I am.” I was speaking Jeanie Tracy just the other night and she was saying that she was there with him, in the car behind him, and he was like, “I want to be there. I want people to see me.” To have that kind of confidence and drive and to have people see this and to let them feel all of that, and to know those stories, that kind of pushes it in a way of continuing his legacy.
MS: I really commend you both for doing this. Honestly, a person would probably assume a musical adaptation of Malcolm X’s life would be more feasible than a staged bio-drama about Sylvester.
AW: I could see why you would say that.
KB: Me too. But that’s when it comes to marketing and promotion. Look, we’re everywhere. This past summer and spring, we’ve been at every gay pride, every underground party, Sunday sermon, Brooklyn parties in Fort Greene, to disco parties at 12 a.m. where we are the youngest people there. We’re in there, in the streets, promoting and letting people know. They’re like, “Sylvester!” They gag.
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and EDGE Media Network.