An interview with James T. Justis – playing Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Superstar
October 05-10, 2021
** PROOF OF VACCINATION REQUIRED
Theatre is back! Say “Amen” and “Hallelujah”! What better what to launch the return of musical theatre than with Jesus Christ Superstar? This classic musical (‘pop-opera’?) celebrates its 50th Anniversary with a newly ‘reimagined’ production. James T. Justis, who plays ‘Judas Iscariot’, sat down to answer a few questions about the production, returning to the theatre, and his career.
Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?
James Justis: Michael Jackson, definitely. I went to a Michael Jackson concert and saw him live when I was younger. I remember thinking: ‘I want to do something like this,’ but didn’t know how or when. Billy Porter is a big part of my career and we’ve become friends. I found out a performing arts school opened around me when I was a kid and that was that. Luther Vandross, Patti LaBelle, and Whitney Houston were also influential in my life.
Andrews-Katz: What was the show that gave you the “Theatre Bug”?
Justis: I think it must have been the original production of Pippin, with the character The Leading Player played by Ben Vereen. That role I fell in love with and thought ‘I could do it’. A Chorus Line was another. I remember at a young age those shows inspired me to get into theatre.
Andrews-Katz: You took over the role of Lola in Broadway’s Kinky Boots. What was your biggest challenge performing in drag?
Justis: Learning to walk in heels. That, and forty-five minutes of putting on make-up. It got better and easier as the time went on. You get more familiar with it and it becomes easier.
Andrews-Katz: Performances of Jesus Christ Superstar started to tour before the pandemic hit. What challenges did you face coming back to the theatre?
Justis: Judas is a really demanding role vocally. Having a year and a half off was not good for that. I had to get conditioned vocally to do this role again, and be ready for 8 times a week. That was the biggest challenge. It was a lot to take on vocally. Everything else eventually fit into place. This [the role of Judas] is one of my dream roles and I worked on that challenge.
Andrews-Katz: This tour is the touted as the “50th Anniversary [reimagined] Tour”. Tell us more about the ‘reimagined’ part.
Justis: The 50th anniversary of ‘The Brown Album’ (double concept album, 1972). A lot of J.C.S. fans have the rendition and versions of how the songs are produced from that album. It was a rock album before it was a stage show, and we are going back to the rock part of it. We are doing homage to that album. It’s a rock concert mixed in with dance and a story as well. But it is more about the music and dance with the story that is already weaved into the tale. It’s a neat concept that we haven’t seen before. It’s hard to explain. Everything you thought previously about it, you should suspend and come in with an open slate to what is being presented.
Andrews-Katz: How does an actor keep themselves ‘on-the-ready’ during a pandemic when no performances are happening?
Justis: There were a lot of social media events that were happening. I found myself busy doing things on social media, to the point where I needed to stop and take a break! I went back to school and got a degree in Web Development. I spent my time doing that. I was also down in Florida and had the opportunity to sing at Universal and Disney S.
Andrews-Katz: You play the role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Would you say that Judas is a villain, hero, anti-hero, or something more?
Justis: I’d say, that in this production, Judas is more of a hero. Others say, “anti-hero”, but I think there is something more to Judas. He has a perspective on what his mission was to be. Tim Rice (lyricist of Jesus Christ Superstar) gave Judas a voice. He was a human, and he had to make choices. What were the conversations going on in Judas’ mind? This production leaves us with a question about his role. Personally, I started to study the character and the archetype of what he has become. I read the Bible, as well as the Gospel of Judas (removed from the Bible), and other books taken out of the Bible. Without Judas turning Jesus into the authorities, there is no ‘salvation’. Technically, Judas should be celebrated instead of booed. I fell in love with the character and feel he has been given a bad turn.
Andrews-Katz: Part of the story of Jesus is about rebellion against authority. Since a person of color almost always plays the role of Judas, has the current social unrest added any nuances to the way you portray the character?
Justis: That’s a good question. I don’t look at it as Judas being a bad guy. I think he is a hero. I am honored to be the archetype of Judas and to give him a voice. Myself, being a person of color, I cherish that. I think that we’ve been told we have to question society. I want people to look at Judas in a different light and from different perspectives. He wasn’t a bad guy, and was only doing what he had to do. However that is translated into today’s society, I hope it would be looked on as a good thing. Tim Rice asks, “What did Judas do in these times? What did Judas see?” Judas had a vision and a plan.
Andrews-Katz: You’re a published poet. What is it about poetry that calls to you?
Justis: I write songs. A lot of my poetry has become songs. Some of it is on Poetry.com. I have many others unpublished. I have thoughts as a person, and as a person that was in the Foster Care System. I have situations in my life that I want to share. I want to be an example of overcoming obstacles, that doesn’t have me defined by them. I want to be encouraging to others who have gone through those aspects.
Andrews-Katz: You’re currently working on a book called, “HisStory”. Will you tell us more about it?
Justis: It’s my memoirs. It goes into my childhood a lot, and who I am as a person. I was in a particular [Foster] home for four years, ages 1-5, and the things that went on there… it’s a miracle I survived.
Andrews-Katz: I won’t ask details now.
Justis: For details you’ll have to read the book.
Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role regardless of any limitations what would it be and why that role?
Justis: I go back to The Leading Player [in Pippin]. That role was one of the first ones I saw. I wanted to do that. The Pippin revival was a few years ago on Broadway. I begged the director [whom I worked with previously] to let me read for it, but they wanted to switch it up and go with a female lead – which is awesome! But that is one of my dream roles.
James T. Justis is no stranger to the theatre. He has appeared alongside the likes of Idina Menzel, Brian D’Arcy James, Taye Diggs, and during his illustrious career.
Jesus Christ Superstar is the first production at the Paramount Theatre, and the first live theatre production in Seattle, since the Covid pandemic started in early 2020. This is the 50th Anniversary of the concept album.