Eric Clausell has performed in the Tacoma theatre scene for several years. He’s been seen in Suessical, the Musical, Smokey Joe’s Café, Ragtime, and now the award-winning show, Thurgood. Taking on the historical figure is no easy task. Mr. Clausell shares the struggles and triumphs of participating in this one-man show.
Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?
Eric Clausell: My aunt was always involved in the theatre. When I was a kid I saw her shows and I remember, ‘there’s something magical about the theatre.’ That same aunt and another aunt later took me – every year – to see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas & Easter Shows – back when they had an Easter show. That was an amazing thing to me. And that influenced me. I saw my first Broadway show in 6th Grade, age 12. It was the original company of The Wiz. I remember to this day that every single time Stephanie Mills sang, chills ran down my spine. It was definitely a ‘Wow!’ moment in my life. My mom always liked the theatre as well, so I saw other shows, too.
Andrews-Katz: Acting wasn’t your first choice of study in high school. What did you want to do originally? What made you change your mind?
Clausell: In high school I had an identity crisis; I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to an all-boy’s school, and I felt very lost in my junior year. I was part of the choir and the musicals; even at a young age I was a song-and-dance kid. Once I had the realization that I could do it professionally, I went to my little library in the Bronx. I did as much research and reading as I could. I auditioned for – and got accepted by – American Music Drama Academy, but couldn’t go. I couldn’t afford it at the time. I started taking dance classes and vocal classes and studied at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Then I started auditioning for anything I could.
Andrews-Katz: For over nine years, in different countries and different venues you played the role of Electra from Starlight Express. What was it that made you stay with the role for so long?
Clausell: I’ve not done ‘Broadway’ but I’ve been on Broadway Tours. I saw Starlight Express in London before becoming part of the show. Electra is a great role. He flies out of the ceiling. He has an awesome song, and everyone is singing while roller-skating around him! Who wouldn’t want to do that? How fabulous can fabulous be? The show stops so you can enter the stage and come out of the ceiling!
Andrews-Katz: Starlight Express is known as the ‘Lloyd Webber musical on roller skates’ and, rumor has it, there were usually a number of casualties. Were you ever involved in any collisions or accidents?
Clausell: I can’t honestly say how often; there were so many. There are anywhere from 20-26 people on roller skates at anytime around you. People are going to fall. People fell all the time. One time I hurt my knee right before we started. I had to get it operated on and drained. Another time I slipped mid-stage. I’ve fallen in the middle of my solo ‘AC-DC’. In Germany, I skated off the stage and into the front row. It was like something out of Comedy Central. It’s funny…now. Not then.
Andrews-Katz: In a 1996 interview you said that you wanted to perform in Smokey Joe’s Café. The dream was accomplished in 2016 at Tacoma’s Little Theatre. What is it about this show that called to you?
Clausell: The music is part of the American Song Book. The music is awesome. The lyrics are awesome. The arrangements are awesome. The songs are in my wheelhouse, as what I do as a song-and-dance person. It is a show that I’ve always wanted to do. I was fortunate enough to not only be in the show, but I also choreographed it at the TLT. That was a big undertaking. We had a great cast and it’s a great show. It’s an ‘ensemble’ show, and it’s a small cast.
Andrews-Katz: You are currently playing the title role in the play Thurgood. Is it more difficult to portray a fictional character or someone that is known in history?
Clausell: I think it’s harder to play a known person. It might be even more difficult to play a person, who isn’t in show biz, but someone who is socially and politically a relevant person. We don’t usually get to play those kinds of people on stage that much. Someone like Thurgood Marshall has such a sound history. He is a big deal. He’s so much part of this narrative in the Civil Rights movement. Everyone has an idea of who this person is, and there’s going to be pressures to live up to that something that everyone knows.
“The right time, the right man and the right place,” said by President Johnson when appointing Thurgood Marshall to the United States Supreme Court.
Andrews-Katz: Thurgood was descended from slaves on both sides of his family. How do you think legacy drove him to become a United States Supreme Court Justice?
Clausell: I don’t know if it was his slave history, but it was definitely his parents. His parents, at that time, were considered to be “Middle Class Blacks” in Baltimore. Maryland was a border state between the North and South, and black and white people lived harmoniously. That’s until Jim Crowe started its work up North. His parents rubbed shoulders within the entire community, so those Jim Crowe laws didn’t cut squarely into his idea of what was fair and just. His father also had an interest in the courts and legal arguments. He fostered that curiosity in his son as well. He took Thurgood to the courthouses to sit in the back and listen. His father helped to test him on cases. He learned to have a full appreciation of the law, and the impact it could have on the lives of people.
Andrews-Katz: Since Thurgood is a one-man show do you strive to impersonate the man or to represent him?
Clausell: The challenge there is that there was only one Thurgood Marshall. Anyone portraying him is not going to be him, and few would be able to impersonate. For me, I’m trying to embody who this person was, and the power and fervor for the law, his career and social justice that he felt. I’m trying to bring that to life more than trying to impersonate him. The audience doesn’t have to see Thurgood Marshall on stage to believe. They need to see someone who embodies this person’s essence, his powers and tribulations, all in a theatre context to create a moving experience. I had the pleasure to see Lawrence Fishbourne do the original role on Broadway. It was a powerful portrayal of this historically significant person.
Andrews-Katz: Most people know of Thurgood Marshall because of Brown v. Board of Education that prohibited racial segregation in public education. If you had to pick any of the many other cases he argued or ruled on as the next singular most important one, what would it be?
Clausell: Let me think a moment about this one. I think that one of the most important ones would have to be Smith v. Allwright. It was about voting and opened the door for challenging the voting rights. Voting is one of the most important Civil Rights. Jim Crowe laws were attacking African-Americans and were disenfranchising them from their voting rights. Without a vote the people don’t have a say in what America looks like.
Andrews-Katz: What does playing someone like Thurgood Marshall mean for you?
Clausell: I feel very privileged and honored to bring this role to the community. It’s a timely and an important piece.
Andrews-Katz: How is it timely?
Clausell: We are in a moment where the very judicial structures that Thurgood Marshall was a part of, are being chipped away at. People today need to be aware of the ways in which our country has changed. It’s changed in ways we thought we had long ago moved passed. This piece shines a light on the fight for Civil Rights and equal protections under the law. The play is kind of juxtaposed with the current political moment, where parts of those accomplishments are being challenged. For me, it’s important to bring this to the stage and to the public.
Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role – regardless of any limitation – what would it be and why?
Clausell: I’m someone that doesn’t have favorites because there are so many things that I like. To be honest, what popped into my head and I don’t know why. I would like to play Lola in Kinky Boots. It’s not a dream role, but I’d like to do it. I’ve always wanted to play Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, that’s on my bucket list. Those jump out at me. Those and the Leading Player in Pippin.
George Stevens Jr.’s Thurgood begins its eight performance run at the Theater on the Square (Broadway Center for the Performing Arts) in Tacoma Feb. 23 – March 3. Displaying scenes from the life of Thurgood Marshall, the play shows the journey from the young man descended from slaves, to becoming the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, and his part in some of the most historical cases in U.S. History. Get tickets and more info here.