Theater acting was not always in the cards for James Earl Jones II. Initially, the actor — who says he is a distant cousin of James Earl Jones — wanted to be a doctor.
He was inspired to pursue medicine due to his Tourette Syndrome, a condition of the nervous system that causes tics — repeated sounds, twitches, or movements the body makes beyond the person’s control. However, he changed his mind about becoming a doctor.
“I’m not quite sure I’m cut out for 15 to 20 years of school,” Jones said, who added that he enjoyed singing as a hobby.
With some encouragement from a family member, he started his career in singing. He began studying music at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Afterward, Jones performed opera in Rome, Venice, Florence and even the halls of Notre Dame.
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His next stop is the Queen City, where he will perform in Blumenthal Performing Art’s run of the Broadway musical “Come From Away.”
“Come From Away,” tells the story of 7,000 plane passengers stranded in Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, Canada, when planes were grounded during the tragic 9/11 attacks. Jones will portray Bob, a character based on real-life passenger Tom McKeon, a White man among those stranded.
“Someone sees me on stage, and they’re like, Oh, that’s not quite Tom,” Jones said. “But the general attitude and feeling of his character, being uncomfortable in this new place in this new world, for five days — that is what I try to emulate.”
Jones said that as a Black man who has visited Gander, he relates to McKeon’s experience of feeling out of place. “When I went [to Gander], I was seemingly one grain of pepper in a sea of salt.”
The last time Jones was in the Queen City was for Blumenthal’s previous run of “Come From Away” in 2020. The show halted, however, due to the pandemic. Before that, Jones performed in “Porgy and Bess.” Jones is also a television actor with credits in shows like Chicago Fire and Chicago Med.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
You’ve done opera and theater. What are some of the differences between the mediums?
First, most operas do not use microphones. Traditionally, musical theater does. Most operas will perform less than eight times weekly, Tuesday through Sunday. Opera generally does two or three shows a week max because it is very taxing in a different way.
With opera, I sing, but I’m not dancing; I’m not doing anything extra. Singing is my acting. In musicals, you must do everything: sing, dance and act.
Come From Away has a very emotional setting during 9/11. How do your previous works compare?
I did a musical with the Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago called the “Scottsboro Boys,” a true story about nine young Black boys sentenced to death for allegedly raping two white women.
That was the first musical I had done [that was a true story about tragic events. Interestingly, there are funny moments in “Scottsboro Boys,” but I think it is a heartbreaking but educational musical. I think the same thing about “Come From Away,” but in a little different way.
The beauty of what David and Irene did is that they tried to focus on the events happening in Gander: the hopeful and optimistic events. We don’t shy away from what happened in New York. It is this love letter to humanity that many people are unfamiliar with. It allows people to remember that there is still goodness in this world.
What’s your dream role?
[James Earl Jones] is a distant cousin. He’s not my father. But I feel like, vocally, I was born to play Mufasa [of the Lion King].