Ron Kellum, Felicia Boswell, and Destan Owens all have something in common: None of them expected to be working on this production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
The all-black cast, featuring Owens as Jesus and Boswell as Mary Magdalene, begins performances April 19 at the Paramount Theatre just outside Chicago. Kellum directs the production, but admits he didn’t understand the piece the first time he saw it in his twenties. “The main reason is the music wasn’t in my vocabulary. Rock music felt like a lot of noise to me back then,” he explains. “At one point, I saw it again, and I really heard the lyrics, I thought.., ‘Oh my god, this is genius.” Now, he sees a chance to infuse the music with new life. “The idea of putting this show in the African-American voicing inspires me. I thought, ‘Wow, we can do so much with this while still respecting the integrity of the piece.’”
The idea of doing an all-black production, and specifically to do it in Chicago, was an idea that got Kellum’s attention, even when he didn’t think he would be directing it. He wasn’t available when Jim Corti and Tim Rater, the artistic director and executive director of the Paramount, approached him with the idea. “I remember saying, ‘Look, you have to do this. I don't care if you do it with me, but you have to do an all African-American Jesus Christ Superstar.’ It's a great opportunity. The timing is now,” Kellum says. “You’re minutes away from Chicago which is the hotbed of Black Lives Matter. There are men and women dying in the streets every single day. It’s an opportunity for the community to inspire and touch people.” Once he found out that he would be able to work on it, he says that he’s “never been so excited for something” in his entire career.
For Boswell and Owens, it hasn’t been easy. Boswell says her faith made the idea of playing Mary a nerve-wracking one. “I've turned down every audition for Mary Magdalene in my entire career...Mary frightens me a little. I never wanted to play that part, because of my faith,” Boswell says. “I walked in and Ron was talking about his vision and I knew this was something special.” Owens saw Jesus as a real challenge, as well. “As a Christian, playing Jesus is tricky,” he says. “I can’t let what my knowledge is outside the world of theatre influence 100 percent of what I'm doing.” He knows the race of the performers will be on the audience’s mind, but he hopes it won’t stop them from being engaged. “You inevitably are going to see color...Whether it's a black or white audience member, my desire is that when you walk in, you’re open. That you say, ‘I see the story.’” Boswell, for one, has complete faith in Owens: “Destan is the perfect person to be standing in the role of Jesus in this production. He brings so much to who I believe Jesus would be.”
In the end, Kellum hopes that the show leaves every audience member feeling something. “If everyone leaves expectation at the door, and walks in to have an experience, they’re going to recognize why this story continues to be told. Whether you believe in the divine or not, this is a story that will continue to live on.”
Jesus Christ Superstar begins performances at the Paramount Theatre April 19. For tickets and information visit ParamountAurora.com.