The actor Willem Dafoe said “Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasize about a world we aspire to.” Theater is a magical art form that brings people into the lives of others and teaches understanding, opens minds, entertains and hopefully inspires. Philadelphia has long been a city with a thriving theater scene, and it’s on full display from now until May 2. Philly Theatre Week is a celebration of 64 theaters and arts organizations across the region participating in both in-person and virtual shows. Companies from every single corner of Philadelphia will be represented, as well as from Delaware to New Jersey to the far Philadelphia suburbs. Participants will range from large regional professional theaters to college-based organizations to small up-and-coming theaters and every size and shape in between.
This week’s Portrait is representing one of our favorite theaters, the Wilma on Broad Street. The Wilma has been doing innovative theater for decades and this week’s offering is no different. One of this summer’s most anticipated films is the Steven Spielberg remake of “West Side Story.” In case you don’t know, “West Side Story” is an updated version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” For Theatre Week, the Wilma is reviving and revamping another of Shakespeare’s classics. “Fat Ham” is a renewed and rethought version of “Hamlet.” It is described as a “contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in the American South, which explores big issues, like toxic masculinity and cycles of violence, with a light touch.” Taking the role of the Prince is the talented actor, Brennen S. Malone. We had a moment to talk to him about performing the Bard’s work and life as an actor.
So happy belated birthday; I read that you’re an Aries. What ram type traits do you have?
Oh my goodness gracious, my moon always takes over for me, but my Aries traits? I guess I’m super impulsive in terms of ambition and moving forward. I have that fire in me. I’ve never backed down from a challenge. Wait, impulsive is a misnomer. I’d say I’m pretty even keeled for an Aries, people are always asking me, ‘are you sure you’re an Aries? You’re too chill!’
Where are you from?
Born and raised in West Philly near Overbrook High School. I stayed there until it was time to go away for school.
And then you took a little trip.
Yeah, I went to school in Maine! I needed to get out and see something different. It was beautiful there, a little isolating, but I loved just seeing all that space. Originally I thought that I would end up working in law or in an English department. My school was awesome, it was a liberal arts school and they let me make up some weird major in rhetoric, with a minorities in film minor, and also pursue theater. I loved it… [laughs] until winter, then I was like, ‘Why did I do this!?!’
Yes, it was great because it allowed me to create a foundation in how to present an argument in case I wanted to pursue law.
Tell me a little about your family.
I was adopted by my Aunt when my mother wasn’t able to take care of us, us being me and my siblings. She already had her own 4 kids so technically I’m the youngest of 8 kids, four boys, four girls. So that was fun, constantly being under the thumb of an older sibling. Though for me, I’d just sit back and watch and say, “Yeah, I see what y’all are doing and I’m learning what NOT to do so I can stay out of trouble!” But we were a close knit group and though I call her my aunt, she raised me like a mother.
Were you a theatrical kid?
I was more of an introvert. I tended to keep my head down, though I did sing a lot. I was in church choir but overall I was a quiet-ish kid. Definitely not who I am now!
What was the first show that you did?
“The Wiz”. I love that show so much, I’ve been in it 3 times! Starting when I was 14. I auditioned to be in the ensemble only to be shocked when I looked at the call list and saw that I was cast as the Tin Man. Wait, what? Nooo! I was not expecting that! It was great and I’ve been hooked on theater ever since.
I’ll have you know that a lot of Broadway shows used to come to Philadelphia to work the last kinks out right before they went to NY so I got to see The Wiz with the entire original cast, Stephanie Mills, Andre DeShields, Ted Ross, etc. It was amazing.
I didn’t know that about Philly. Oh my gosh, they need to start doing that again!
I know, it was awesome. So that was your accidental entry into theater, what roles have you played since then?
In high school I did everything from the white rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland” to “The Tempest” where I played Antonio and “Julius Caesar” where I played Brutus.
So you’ve had a little experience doing Shakespeare.
Yes, at the beginning it was like, okay, I have no idea what I’m saying, but I had a great teacher who helped me understand by showing me how to figure it out without giving me the answers.
I just recall being shocked at how racy some of the things were once you figured out what he was saying!
Very true! During the quarantine I’ve been doing little Shakespeare podcasts and sometimes it’s like, wow Willy, you really found a poetic way to make a naughty joke! I love it!
Which brings us to “Fat Ham,” how has that been updated?
It’s been moved to a modern setting, the world that we’re in now. Not including the pandemic, but the lead character, Juicy, is a young black man trying to go to college, to get a degree online in human resources. He’s very thoughtful and sweet and sensitive and he just wants to be himself. His family loves him but he’s a bit of the oddball in the family and tends to wander off into big philosophical and existential musings when they try to talk to him, so they opt to try to avoid him. I can relate, I tend to wax on a little myself sometimes.
[Laughing] I checked out your FaceBook page and noticed that you do like to pose questions.
Oh no! Wow, ok, yes. I do like to ask questions. I am eternally a student. No matter what I think I know, I like learning from others. I have that in common with the character. Also he’s a goober, he’s a geek and I love that about him.
Was this always meant to be a film?
No, it was written for the stage, but because of the pandemic we decided to be cautious. It has been fun, but it took some getting used to because I’ve never acted for film before and I had to learn to slow down and reel it in. I was trained to project to the back of the room and now it’s, oh yeah, they have mics. We also had to choreograph not just our own movements, but the camera movements as well which was new for me. And I’m a little bit of a klutz so I had to be careful not to make some big spontaneous movement and knock a camera over!
You spoke about your quest for learning, did I read that you’ve started piano lessons?
I have. I took a few lessons as a kid but we didn’t have a piano so it didn’t go far, but I’m really enjoying it now that I’ve had enough money to buy a piano. I think the years of singing helped. It’s all clicking together. Though I’m having trouble playing with my left hand which is surprising since I’m left handed. I’m also going to take ballet lessons, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. This play is about toxic masculinity and the reason I didn’t take ballet as a kid was that I was afraid of what my friends would say.
When did you come out?
[Sighs] It’s a process, I’m still not completely out yet.
You will be when this is printed! Are you okay with that?
Yes, it had to happen. I’m not afraid of it, it happened once before when I was about 18, I told a family member and that person then brought it up at the dinner table. I was like, “Ok, I’m not there yet, can we not do this?” and so I went back into the closet. Then at 19 I went through a little existential crisis and was told, “Mmm, no. You can’t be that way. It’s not right for you” and I was like, “Oh, okay?” and went back in that closet again. I guess I kept going back in because I still wasn’t comfortable with it myself yet. I love my family and always wanted us on the same page but I had to realize that there were some things we weren’t going to agree on. And now I am a proud, out, queer man!
Has this show been the catalyst?
Yes, but every show I do I get more confidence in myself and my sexuality. And I’m around a lot of other queer folks, so when I see how much they love themselves and that our journeys are very similar it’s like a power charge for me. I did a silly show before the pandemic called “Gay Miz,” filled with all these fantastic queer performers and it was incredible how free I felt doing that show. Fat Ham is coming to terms with that softer, gentler side of masculinity. I get this character, I really do.
Are most of your roles heterosexual? And are you ever worried that being open will limit you?
Not really, most of my roles are straight or there’s no real love angle. I find more closed doors when it comes to race, black or BIPOC people not being cast because of their skin color. We’re working on it.
Tell me a little about the Black Theatre Alliance.
When the BLM started to gain traction, we noticed that not a lot of theaters were lending their support. Not being against, but not declaring any support. So the group was formed out of conversation about that and finding ways to give POC’s more access into the arts communities. They have a mentorship program and I’ve just been paired up with someone amazing, so I’m really excited. And he’s as much into musical theater as I am.
What was the most blatant moment you recall?
When I was in school, I really wanted a musical theater class, and we got a grant to have someone come in and teach us. I was singing a song called, “Moving too fast” which is sung by a white, Jewish actor in the play and, oh God, I finished the song and I nailed it, and the teacher opens his mouth and says, “Wow Brennen, you have a very… African-American sounding voice.” What was that supposed to be? An insult? A weird compliment? I just fumbled an answer because I didn’t know how to process that. I said, “Thank you very much, I’ve been working on it.”
What is Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia?
That was my high school. That’s where I developed my love of theatre.
Can you speak Latin?
Yes, I hate to brag, but I was a pretty good student. I passed the Latin exam every year and got a medal or certificate each time. I even taught it in summer school.
What villain would you want to play?
If it was a musical, I would love to play Scar from “The Lion King.” Non-musical, I’d say Ebon from the “Static Shock” series. He has control of shadows. It’s from the DC world of comics and it’s really cool. Actually any one of their villains would be cool to play. Or Dr. Facilier from “The Princess and the Frog.”
Would you rather swim in a pool or an ocean?
A pool. I have a fear of being stung by a jellyfish. I’m more afraid of that than seeing a shark.
What color annoys you?
Really neon colors, especially yellow, it hurts my eyes just to think about it!
I saw that you got your vaccination, good for you and especially for posting about the importance of it.
Yes, we need to get more folks to step up and take a shot.
Do you have a day job?
I work as a preschool teacher. I work with two year olds and they’re all awesome. They’re really, really smart.
What’s a favorite moment with one of your kids?
I have one kid who is not as verbal as the rest, and hearing him say my name for the first time almost made me cry. Out of the blue he came up and gave me a hug and said, “Binnen,” it was close enough.
What’s the nicest thing someone has said about you?
Well, the first one that popped in my mind is someone who once said to me, “You are what happens when hard work and opportunity meet.”
For information on streaming “Fat Ham” visit wilmatheater.org/.