30 under 30: from “Whipping Man” to “Choir Boy,”
Pointing out that John Stewart is an actor to watch seems a bit redundant. He’s an actor who’s bound to make Atlantans sit up and take notice.
Stewart first came to our attention in the intense three-man Civil War drama “The Whipping Man” at the Alliance Theatre in March. The 25-year-old Stone Mountain native and Shiloh High School graduate not only managed to hold his own with veteran actors, he walked away with more than a couple of scenes. It was such a thoroughly polished performance in a hefty role that it’s surprising to learn that it was one of Stewart’s first appearances on a professional stage. And it earned him a Suzi Bass Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play.
Atlantans who missed Stewart in “The Whipping Man” (also nominated for a Suzi Award for Best Play) will get a chance to check out his work in one of the first “don’t miss” productions of the fall season: “Choir Boy” at the Alliance, which opened September 20. Set at a boys’ prep school in the South, the play by young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney examines issues of spirituality and sexual identity among young black men. It had an auspicious world premiere in New York this summer, with a glowing review in The New York Times, weeks of sold-out performances and several extensions. The majority of the New York cast came down to Atlanta, and Stewart, who understudied in New York, has taken on the role of A.J. in the Atlanta production.
ArtsATL: Tell us about your character A.J. in “Choir Boy.”
Stewart: A.J., or Anthony Justin James, is a scholarship student at the Charles R. Drew Prep School. He plays baseball on a full scholarship. He’s roommates with the lead character, Pharus. They’re friends, and the dynamic in the room, it turns out to be the one place where Pharus can be himself unapologetically. Anthony thinks that Pharus is completely comfortable in the room and that they’re really open with each other. He doesn’t realize that even in the room, Pharus has his guard up.
It’s not until certain things happen that Anthony realizes how much of his guard Pharus has up. A.J. gets the opportunity throughout the show to be a confidant of Pharus, who shows him friendship and acceptance in the midst of a school that is pressuring him to fit into a box, pressuring him to change. Anthony is accepting him for who he is. Through the show we realize why Anthony is so particular about doing that, about making sure he speaks to Pharus and is open to Pharus.
Stewart: My mom always said if I could walk anywhere or run, I would always run. It’s just the way I was wired. I used that running in football and sports for years. A lot of my energy went into sports.
My parents believed in exposing me to everything they could. I took piano lessons but didn’t stick with it. I regret it now. Kids, if you’re taking piano lessons, stick with it. I played the violin for two days. And I played the trumpet for a while.
It wasn’t until the last semester of my senior year of high school that I got into theater. A friend of mine in math class was going to audition for a high school show, and he asked if I wanted to do it. I thought, why not. We were supposed to do a song, and I didn’t have one. The director asked me to sing “Happy Birthday,” so I sang that. And then they cast me in a musical. I played Papa Ge in “Once on This Island.” I loved it.
ArtsATL: After “Choir Boy,” what else is coming up in terms of your long-term goals?
Stewart: Honestly, after “Choir Boy,” I’m hoping for a Christmas show. That slot would be fantastic. I’m booked to do “Lombardi” at the Aurora, which starts rehearsals in January. After that, I don’t know. I want to go where the work takes me. I don’t care where that is. I haven’t done any TV or film, and that’s a great way to reach so many people. I’d like to get into directing at some point. I want to do so much.
John Stewart in “The Whipping Man” at the Alliance Theatre.