Anthony Wayne, seasoned Broadway actor and singer, Kendrell Bowman, seasoned costume stylist and designer, and Sheryl Lee Ralph, a diva who needs no introduction, are the creative minds behind the latest Off Broadway sensation, Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.
Wayne was inspired to format Sylvester’s life into a play based on an episode of TV One’s Unsung and with the help of Bowman, his business partner, they realized that they needed a strong collaborator to bring this production to the forefront. They took a gamble by reaching out to Sheryl Lee Ralph on Twitter. Eventually, Ralph, who actually knew Sylvester, realized that this form of art was the perfect way to help spread awareness about HIV/AIDS, the disease that took Sylvester’s life, so she used her The DIVA Foundation as the platform and so far so good.
We caught up with the trio to chat about their production, Sylvester’s impact on the world, and how everyone can help create awareness about HIV/AIDS by supporting the production. – Starrene Rhett Rocque
Sheryl, what was it about the production that struck your interest?
I knew Sylvester and I loved the recreation of that photograph of him in the white tuxedo looking very androgynous because that was the 80s, and Grace Jones was doing that look, David Bowie was doing it, but nobody did it as great as Sylvester did, and I remember that picture and I was just getting all of these phone calls saying, “You have got to meet these guys,” “You have got to see this show. A lot of people have a dream but once they get it halfway coming true they don’t know what to do [but] they were ready they were prepared and took action and the moment that we put out that release that we were all working together, things sort of changed overnight in the kind of response so we’ve been having a great time.
Anthony and Kendrell, what was it about Sylvester that inspired you so much that you decided to create this musical about him?
Anthony: I was watching a TV show called Unsung on TVOne and something about his perseverance, his drive and determination inspired me. Being a young black man in America right now, it’s very obvious that it’s hard for us to come up and go above and beyond. We have to be excellent to be average and it was obvious that he was working against the grain with what he wanted to do, what it was for him to be his real self, and I was inspired by that to write out the story of his life and put his music around it. As I enjoyed the music, it just came about and as we started to promote it and talk about what we wanted to do I always said to Kendrell that somebody should celebrate him in some kind of way so then we came together with our minds to do something, which was this musical.
Sheryl : And the truth of the matter is, there’s nothing like finding your own role of a lifetime to be able to find something that fits so perfectly, and there’s also a great story of stepping out of the background into the spotlight. It’s major. There are too few roles for black stars period, and when you’re able to find and create your own, that’s magic.
Anthony, talk about the process of transforming into Sylvester.
Physically, I get makeup done and Kendrell looks at outfits and clothes and makes sure everything is together and ironed and cleaned, and before the show I just pray and make sure that everything is done the right way and that people are inspired no matter what comes out and it just kind of happens. I can’t really explain it.
Sheryl: I love it when it happens like that, that’s great. It’s almost divine. It’s like you were doing something that you were supposed to be doing and you find yourself flying in the creation of it. That’s real art. That’s real magic.
Anthony and Kendrell, what did you learn from working with the Diva Foundation?
Kendrell: I learned more things about Sheryl because Anthony and I are black gay men and we’re aware of a lot of what’s going on in the community. We’re aware of all of what’s going on with HIV and AIDS, so for me, what I learned about Sheryl is just how passionate this woman really is. A lot of times, when people who are on TV take on a topic, it’s like, they’re doing it for charity and what not but Sheryl is really passionate about making people aware of HIV and Aids. She knows statistics out of her mind so easily. And when she speaks we listen. So, I learned so much about Sheryl as a person. She’s very intelligent. When we went to meet her in Philadelphia, we met her at 9 in the morning and she was done up with makeup and hair but when she speaks all of that façade or what you may think of that diva stuff—there’s none of that. It’s more like royalty.
Anthony, did you discover anything new about Sylvester in your research beyond Unsung in terms of his impact on pop culture?
I realized that he has influenced a lot of people and not just pop culture and entertainers, regular people who lived during that time period, and people who would go to Studio 54 or Paradise Garage; people who would still feel that feeling because it was infectious. And one of the great things I learned is that he never allowed anybody to define who he was, and that’s the idea throughout the whole process, continuing to be your true self, and that’s the message of this show.
Speaking of messages, what do you all hope viewers get from the play?
Sheryl: I hope this show inspires people to love exactly who they are knowing, and I say it all the time but god does not make mistakes. You are perfect just the way you are. Sylvester lived in a time when he was defiant. It’s hard for people now to think of this man who probably would have been 67 or 68-years-old, to imagine what sort of guts it took for him to be in these Untied States and dress like a woman and create his own musical. He was a part of a company and he played Billie Holiday and to think what goes into that and then put it on stage, for everybody to see him dress up in a way that people will look at you—the 80s were some strange times. David Bowie was weird. Grace Jones was strange; and then to see Sylvester that was like, what the heck? People actually thought like that and sometimes folks did not hold back telling you what they thought. It was sort of like sophisticated 60s, they hated you but nicely, so to be able to celebrate the life of this man who was just himself and it didn’t matter what anybody else thought, and how we crossed paths with his fight against AIDS, and it was loud, it was upfront and folks tried to act lie it wasn’t there. Sylvester was one of those people that made me always realize that this disease was never about color or gender, it was about people.