When the Black Rep announced it would conclude its current season with the classic musical Guys and Dolls, there was no doubting J. Samuel Davis would be in the show. The only question was: Would Davis, who has emerged as the Black Rep's most versatile leading man, play the straight-arrow Sky Masterson or the jaunty Nathan Detroit? Davis is ideally suited for either star role. As it turns out, he wanted neither.
"I wanted to be Benny Southstreet," Davis confides. "He's one of the gangsters and gets to sing cool songs." To hear him tell it, Davis is one leading man who's happiest when he's following. "I'd rather be in the chorus than a lead," he insists. "I loved it when we did Damn Yankees and I was just one of the baseball players. What's not to love? There's no stress. The audience is not looking at me. I don't have to move the story along."
Nor is it simply a preference for featured roles over leads; Davis also prefers dramas over musicals. "With a musical," he says with an infectious grin that suggests he's about to roll loaded dice, "you come in one night and you have no voice; you're stressing about that. If your body hurts, you're stressing about that. Compared to singing in a musical, [August Wilson's heavy drama] Gem of the Ocean was a walk in the park. It got intense, but it still didn't scare me like a musical does."
As lady luck would have it, Davis is cast as Sky. He's been screening the 1955 film version of Guys and Dolls, which stars Marlon Brando as the natty Masterson. "I think Brando is phenomenal-great in the part," Davis says. "I know I can't play it in the understated way that he does. But thanks to Brando, now the actors who play that role onstage don't have to be kill-you, knock-you-down singers. We just have to be cool and suave."
Davis was hardly that when he first began acting. "More than twenty years ago," he recalls, "a friend who was already in the show asked me to sing in the choir in Tambourines to Glory. In those days the Black Rep was in a church at 23rd Street and St. Louis Avenue. I was fascinated by all the stuff going down. Due to a lack of men, Ron Himes pulled me out of the chorus and gave me some lines. Linda Kennedy was the lead. She still tells the story about how I was so nervous that when I held her hand I cut off her circulation. After that they put me in more shows and more shows, and I became a member of the company. There's a lot to be said for on-the-job training. Once they put you out there, you learn pretty fast.
"I always look back at those early years and smile," Davis says. "In those days we were doing it for the love of theater. We weren't getting paid. We had to come up with our own costumes. Sometimes we might have to turn on the sound and then go take our spot on the stage. Today the satisfaction is in seeing how professional the operation has become. There's no stopping the Black Rep."
Not that Davis is restricting his ambitions to one theater: "If there's stuff that I'm right for next season, that's great. But if not, then I'll try to work with some of the other local theaters. I just auditioned for HotCity and Upstream. I would love to be in 12 Angry Men at the Rep. Right now the future is a question mark, but one thing is for sure: I know that I'm going to be doing theater somewhere."