Tamyra Gray, who made her Broadway debut in the original musical Bombay Dreams and appeared in the national tour of If/Then, currently plays Papa Ge in the critically acclaimed, Tony-winning revival of the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical Once On This Island at Circle in the Square Theatre. Below, the former American Idol finalist, also seen on Broadway in the original production of Rent, explains why her current Broadway outing may be her most memorable.
The beauty, strength, and artistry of Once On This Island have captured many of my most memorable moments, and they are still happening every day.
Before OOTI, I had never experienced doing a show with live animals, where I was the one in charge of bringing them out. As you can imagine, Peapod and Sparky, the goats of the island, have taken me around the world and back again. Mischievous little teenagers, they are full of pranks and surprises. Sparky, the oldest and biggest of the two, really loves being onstage, and whenever I come down to visit with them, I always say, “Hi, boyyyysss” from down the hall, and he is the first one to speak with a loud bleat. It makes me so happy. He is always in a hurry to get out onto the stage and has taken me sand-surfing many a night. Peapod, the smaller and younger goat, is always being bullied by Sparky, and when I first joined the company, he would try to bully me with a head-butt or a jump up on my bare stomach with his scratchy hooves in an attempt to dominate me. A little unnerving, I’ll admit. But with time, we have developed a relationship and now share a loving and respectful walk through the sand, as long as I have a pocketful of kale. I don’t even mind the smell of him chewing the cud. With animals come animal tendencies, and occasional accidents that I am more than happy to clean up. Lydia DesRoche, our animal handler, is just extraordinary at what she does and has taught me so much about how to communicate with our “boys.”
We also have the “Dreamgirls” in our show. Deena, Effie, Lorrell, and Michelle are our resident chickens, and they each have quite distinct personalities. Lorrell is extremely talkative and has no problem letting you know when things are not quite right. One night she got out of her pen and started running all over the sand. I thought we were going to have to chase her all around the theatre and that she was going to run into the audience. But [my castmate] Kenita Miller, who keeps an eye on the “girls” when they are onstage, got to her just before she reached the stairs.
The joie de vivre I experience every single night in the sandbox as I watch, listen, and live the stories of this village that come together after a devastating storm—where each person vividly embodies the spirit, essence, and love of who they are—is cathartic: from Hailey Kilgore’s (Ti Moune) beautiful vulnerability, to the strength and soul of Tonton Julian, played by Phillip Boykin, and the heartbeat of Mama Euralie, played by Kenita Miller. The love we experience as everyone enters into this world is soul opening. Every actor is masterful at what they bring to the sandbox. When Alex Newell sings “Mama Will Provide,” his vocals leave you completely mesmerized. I completely lose myself in joy whenever he sings and hits that high G above C. And, if you’re not a technical musician, that’s the Mariah Carey note! Day in and day out those vocals bless my heart and spirit, and I feel as though I am living the best that life has to offer.
The amazing stories, gut-busting laughter, and shared moments on and off the stage with everyone inside of the Circle in The Square
Theatre is testimony to what it means to be a part of a community: common unity. Generosity, love, and grace. When I first joined the company, Merle Dandridge [who originated Papa Ge] left me the most thoughtful and exquisite gift box I’ve ever received with a note inviting me to embrace the love that is shared within the walls of the theatre. To say that I was unprepared for the amount of light that was going to shine is an understatement. Every day is an invitation to welcome in Love, Forgiveness, Hope, and Faith. And every show I get the opportunity to rediscover love.