Brian Stokes Mitchell

Brian Stokes Mitchell on the Star-Studded PBS Special & Changing Theater

Brian Stokes Mitchell doesn’t stop working. The Broadway icon and activist is preparing for a new star-studded PBS special, 20 Years of Christmas with the Tabernacle Choir, while also participating as the Chairman of The Actors Fund, working on the board of Americans for the Arts, and changing theater with fellow co-founders of Black Theater United. “Someone asked me, “How are you doing? Are you working?” Stokes Mitchell said in our interview. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve never worked so hard even when I was getting paid for it.’”

Beginning Monday, December 13 through December 25, PBS and BYUtv will air the Christmas special featuring performances from the past two decades by Kristin Chenoweth, Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, Angela Lansbury, Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, and many others. These are juxtaposed against intimate performances and storytelling by Stokes Mitchell, which were taped last December in an empty 21,000 seat Conference Center on Temple Square. This will also mark The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s first-ever all virtual performance. Ahead of the special, we caught up with Stokes Mitchell to discuss this upcoming presentation and his work with The Actors Fund and Black Theater United.

You have your hands in so many different things, from this new PBS special to the vast charity work you do. How do you manage it all?

Precariously! It’s been a little tough. I do a lot of volunteer work, too. I’m on three boards—Black Theater United, The Actors Fund, and lastly, Americans For the Arts, as well. On top of everything, and getting this show out and doing multiple concerts and working on television and doing Crossovers Live!, I’m also going through the college applications with my son who’s in the 12th grade now. It’s a lot.

Ahead of this special, you accepted a check from the Tabernacle Choir for $100,000 in support of The Actors Fund. Can you talk me through how important this is for you, and how it will help with the work that you do with the organization?

It’s going to help immensely because these have been some really tough times. The Actors Fund, it’s not just for actors. It’s for anybody working in the show business or performing arts. And our sector’s gotten hit particularly hard. Theater was one of the first to go down [during the pandemic]. And we were the last ones to come back. And most people are not big, famous, multi-billion-dollar picture actors. Most people are gig workers, going from job to job, to job, and really living on the edge. A lot of people moved from New York, or Los Angeles, or the cities where they would normally work. A lot of people’s secondary jobs were disappearing. With many performers, their secondary jobs are working in restaurants, or maybe bartending. And the restaurants and bars were closed as well. So, it has been devastating to people. This $100,000 check is going to help us to help other people in our industry. We have our Emergency Assistance Fund at The Actors Fund, which normally gives out $2 million a year to about 1,500 people. In the last 20 months, we’re already up to $24 million to about more than 17,000 people. And that’s for people’s most essential things, food, paying the rent, buying insurance, buying their prescriptions. You can see how many people are in need. This check will really be useful.

Your activism has created such an impact within the theater community, but you also have an illustrious career as a performer. Can you talk to me about how you blend both acting and activism?

Here’s the deal, I’ve been doing this now for about 50 years professionally. I always call myself “the luckiest actor in the world” because it’s all I’ve done. I didn’t have to wait tables or have to take a second job. I’ve always been able to support myself and make a living performing, doing voiceover work, or concerts. I always say, “If the universe has been good to you, when the universe asks you to give back, you say yes.” And that’s why I’m involved in groups like The Actors Fund and Black Theater United and Americans For the Arts. If you’re feeling down, the best way to counteract that is to help somebody else. There’s always somebody else worse off than you, that will need assistance in some way, needs something, needs a helping hand, sometimes money, or whatever. And so, this has actually been therapeutic to me, in this time that I haven’t been working as well. When the pandemic started, Allison, my wife, and I were about to open Love Life at City Center. The theater closed four days before it was supposed to open. I had concerts, all of my concerts over the next probably eight to ten months were canceled. I was working on a television show, as a recurring character, that was canceled. And I had a film that was going on. Some of them have since gotten picked up. The film that I was working on, was tick, tick… BOOM! at that time. They asked me to do that. And then that got waylaid as well. So literally all four aspects of show business, I got hit in all of those places. It was good therapy for me to help other people.

You were a former guest member of this choir. How did it feel to be a part of this holiday celebration? 

I just felt very fortunate that they asked me. This is a 20-year retrospective of the choir. It’s been on PBS, and is their top-rated holiday show every year, pretty much. And I just felt really honored because when I was taping the show, there was nobody there. I started having conversations with them and they were thinking about doing a show with an empty theater. And so, I started getting into conversations about what the show could be, and they were talking about me hosting it. And so basically, I give everybody a tour of this empty 21,000 seat theater. The nice part about it is because it’s the 20-year retrospective, it’s like a highlights reel from the last 20 years. And there have been some incredible performers. There have been people from Broadway, from opera, from pop music. Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, all kinds of genres performing there. It’s also a two-hour special, as normally it’s a one-hour show. I was really moved just watching it. I’ve been watching the progress, over the last number of months that we’ve been doing it, and every time I see it, something moves me to tears in some surprising way. It’s something to watch if you want to feel good.

Black Theater United has been doing some incredible work these days. Can you talk to me about the work that you do with the organization?

The main thing that we’ve been working on for a very long time was the New Deal, which came out three months ago now. We were able to gather all of the producers, theater owners, designers, directors, and actors. It was, I believe, the first time all of these groups had ever gotten together in a room to meet and talk about something, work on a common problem and challenge, which was EDI in live theater. We were going from a commercial theater standpoint, but have been working on it from a regional theater standpoint also. We’re really starting to take care of the entire industry. We have a mentorship committee. We were working with Williamstown Theater Festival, and bringing Black artists that are starting out to be mentored there. I just had a meeting about how we can continue this sort of mentorship. We’re going to continue with our town halls and discussions. There is good news and bad news. The good news is we’re working again. So, we don’t have the time that we had, so much. The bad news is, we’re working again. It’s bad news because since we started in June of last year and formed, our founding members have been the staff, and the board, and have been on the committees, and have been doing all of this work alone. We’re just starting to be able to pass it off to other people as well, and it’s just coming in time.

A part of the New Deal, a couple of theater owners agreed to rename a theater after a Black playwright. Can you give a little more information about that and how that will come to be?

That’s what we’re putting together now. I know all of the theater owners because we got to meet with everybody. That was my committee, actually, when we were doing the New Deal. Everybody was with a different group and my group included NaTasha Yvette Williams and Audra McDonald, and we were tasked with working with the theater owners. The renaming was one of the things that we discussed. Jujamcyn already has the August Wilson Theatre, so the Shuberts and the Nederlanders have committed to all also naming a theater after a Black theater artist. And so that’s part of the process that everybody’s going through right now. It’s really exciting, because as you know, and I know, Black artists have been at the forefront of what is happening in music, and dance, and theater. Just Audra alone! But, I think they’re going to want to name the theater after somebody who’s passed on, perhaps. But I’m really excited to see there are conversations going on about “Who do you name the theater after?” and all that. I’m just glad to see forward motion on it all.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. Photo credits to Intellectual Reserve Inc.