Jackson State grads debut on Broadway: ‘You don’t go higher in the theatrical world’

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Photo by Evan Zimmerman/ Murphy Made Photography

The cast of “The Great Society” on Broadway included (from left) Marchant Davis as Stokley Carmichael, Tramell Tillman as Bob Moses; Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ty Jones as Ralph Abernathy.

Two actors with Broadway debuts this season are Jackson State University graduates who
graced the Jackson stage on their professional theater journey. Rob Demery and Tramell
Tillman both give Mississippi a nod for pivotal moments on a path that can be notoriously fickle but immensely rewarding.

Tillman made his Broadway debut in “The Great Society,” which closed Nov. 30 at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theater. Demery makes his in “A Soldier’s Play” presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre. The play opened Jan. 21 and runs through March 15.

“For an actor, that’s the dream, right?” says Tillman. “You don’t go higher in the theatrical world than Broadway. That’s the top of the top.”

For Demery, “It’s something that I always thought could happen, but I don’t think I ever really thought that it would happen. … I don’t think it’s hit me yet.”

Both Demery and Tillman were in the cast of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Soldier’s Play” in New Stage Theatre’s 2010-11 season, as well as at least three other New Stage productions each.

Photo courtesy of Rob Demery

Rob Demery makes his Broadway debut in “A Soldier’s Play.”

On Broadway, Demery has the same role he did in Jackson, as Corporal Bernard Cobb, in a cast led by David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood. Set in 1944 and the then-racially segregated military, it centers on a murder mystery; each character has a chance to shine in interrogations, he says.

Tillman’s multiple roles in “The Great Society,” about Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, included his primary one as civil rights activist Bob Moses, who worked to ensure voting rights for African Americans in Mississippi. “That was a gift,” he says. So was sharing the stage with theater and TV veterans such as Brian Cox, Frank Wood, Richard Thomas and more.

Arkansas native Demery grew up in Flint, Michigan. An All-City point guard, he came to JSU to play basketball, but when he left a JSU play rehearsal for tryouts, “I walked in the gym and I realized I didn’t want to play ball anymore. … The acting bug really kicked in. I didn’t even try out. I went back to rehearsal.

“That’s when I turned acting on 100 percent and now I’m here on Broadway, so I think I made a pretty good decision.” His years in Jackson, 2004 to 2007 and again in 2010, included work with New Stage’s education department. His company, Red Light Arts, puts on educational skits for schools and organizations, has a two-part theater in Atlanta (Rob’s Blackbox Theatre and Leigh’s Cafe Theatre, named for his wife Leigh Amber Demery), and also handles acting instruction, photography, demo reels and more. That tamps down his eagerness to get on other people’s stages, he says, “So, when I do leave, it’s always meaningful.”

Shortly before “A Soldier’s Play” performances started in late December, he still hadn’t had time to get butterflies, he says, flying to New York right after opening his company’s Christmas show in Atlanta and dropping right into rehearsals. “I’m very humble… I’m grateful for it,” he says. He wears so many different hats at Red Light Arts, that being able to focus just on acting “almost seems like a vacation more so than a job.

Mississippi, he says, “really made me who I am today. If nothing else, it taught me survival skills” as he formed a family away from home. His mention of theater to an acquaintance brought an introduction to longtime JSU speech and theater professor Mark G. Henderson.

“I threw him in the water,” Henderson says. Demery signed on for at least eight different shows — mini-performances to full-on scripts — before school had even gotten started.

Photo by Peter Hurley Photography

Tramell Tillman made his Broadway debut this season in last fall’s “The Great Society.”

Tillman, raised in Largo, Maryland, transferred from Xavier University of Louisiana to JSU to finish undergraduate studies, with timing that just missed Hurricane Katrina-related devastation in New Orleans.

Shy as a kid, Tillman was urged by his mom toward involvement with music, sports or theater, “or all of the above,” he says. With a church play at age 10, “I fell in love with it.

“I said, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I want to do this for the rest of my life.’” It’s tough to look at it as a career choice, he says, which seems to relate more to fields like accounting, medicine or law. “In order to do what we do effectively as artists, you have to have a passion for it. It’s not a clear trajectory. … There’s no road map,” in a mercurial industry where so many have different paths.

“For me, it’s been a love affair since I walked away from it, and then jumped back into it, and then walked away from it because I was scared again, or it’s hurtful,” Tillman says. “But, I love what I do, and I love that I’m able to present a story for people, and they’re changed when they leave.”

Friendships built at JSU, New Horizon Church, New Stage Theatre and more are most dear from Tillman’s time in Jackson, 2005 to 2011, “aside from the food,” he adds, laughing, “because the food is delicious.” Jackson provided the spark to pursue acting full-time. After graduation, he’d turned down an advertising job to stay in the state and work for a nonprofit. He was giving back to the community, and seeing a difference, he says, but theater professor Henderson noticed he wasn’t happy and asked why.

“He said, ‘You’re not following your passion,’ … and I realized that it was performing,” Tillman says, “He encouraged me to go to grad school to learn the craft. And, with that, the rocket launched.” Five years after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in acting from the University of Tennessee, he stepped on the Broadway stage. “It’s not the last stop for me,” he vows with a lighthearted laugh. “This is just the beginning.”

Actors’ with Mississippi contacts are rooting for them. In the New York audience for “The Great Society,” Francine Thomas Reynolds, New Stage artistic director, says Tillman “was a standout.” She’s happy to see both hard-working, talented actors enjoy such great success. “It’s just really gratifying.”

“I’m like a proud Papa,” Henderson says. “They’re awesome and I’m proud of both of them.” At JSU, he was impressed by Demery’s interest (“He followed me everywhere”) and his come-early/stay-late commitment. “He was always trying to soak up as much knowledge of theater as he could.” When Henderson found out Demery got the role in “A Soldier’s Play,” “I told him I was proud, but I wasn’t surprised,” and he has plans to see the show in New York. In urging Tillman to strike out for graduate school, he’d said, “Don’t just get a degree, get some networking going on” — advice that, turns out, helped pave the way to Broadway.