Mitchell, Brian Stokes 1957–
Brian Stokes Mitchell 1957–
Brian Stokes Mitchell is an actor and singer with a varied career in television and theater. Mitchell’s dramatic and vocal abilities are well displayed in the musical version of E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel Ragtime. Telling an epic story of Jewish immigrants, urban blacks, and upper class suburban whites in turn of the century New York, Ragtime reached Broadway in late 1997 and earned Mitchell a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical for his portrayal of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a Harlem musician who risks his life to challenge the racist mores of American society. Lloyd Rose of the Washington Post called Mitchell” a splendid, charismatic Walker, with an edge of tenderness that makes you feel for him. He’s also a lithe, exciting dancer.”
The youngest of four children, Mitchell was born in Seattle, Washington in 1957. He spent his early childhood in Guam and the Philippines where his father, a former Tuskegee airman during World War II, worked as an electronics engineer for the U.S. Navy. Mitchell’s ethnic background is German, Scottish, African, and Native American.” My family’s very, very mixed. I am, I guess, a kind of melting pot person,” Mitchell told Sean Mitchell of the Los Angeles Times. Mitchell’s appearance has sometimes caused problems with casting. Early in his career he gave up hope of getting work in television commercials.” [T]hey didn’t know what to do with me. ‘He looks black but kinda white, maybe Hispanic.’ And they don’t want somebody to think of that when they’ve got their thirty seconds and $6 million on the line. They’re going for very specific markets. In a sense, that is a form of racism, and it is still practiced,” Mitchell noted in the Los Angeles Times.
When Mitchell was fourteen, his family settled in San Diego. He attended high school there and began acting with the San Diego Junior Theater. At the age of sixteen, he landed his first professional acting job in a production of the musical Godspell at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. An accomplished musician who began taking piano lessons at age six, Mitchell was uncertain whether to pursue a career as a musician or an actor. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1977, he decided to let fate make the decision for him. “I thought, ‘Whatever hits, I’ll go in that direction. If it’s music fine; if it’s acting, fine,’” Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times. He quickly found work with the Twelfth Night Repertory Company
Born in Seattle, WA, on October 31, 1957; son of George (an electronics engineer) and Lillian Stokes (a policewoman and school administrator) Mitchell; married Allyson Tucker (an actress), 1994.
Career: Actor on stage, television and films; first acted at San Diego Junior Theater, c. early 1970s; first professional appearance in Godspell, Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, CA, c. 1974; Broadway appearances include Mail, 1986; Oh, Kay !, 1990; jelly’s Last jam, 1993; Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1994; Ragtime, 1997-98; television appearances include Roots; The Next Generation, ABC, 1979; Trapper lohn, M.D., CBS, 1979-86, Houston Knights, CBS, 1987-88, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, c. 1990s, Carnegie Hall Opening Night, PBS, 1998; appeared on the recordings Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1994; Cabaret Noel: A Broadway Cares Christmas Album, 1994; Songs from ‘Ragtime: theMusv’cal’ 1996; Ragtime; The Musical, Original Broadway cast recording, 1998; George Gershwin: The 100th Birthday Celebration, 1998.
Awards: Theatre World citation for outstanding New York theater newcomer for Mail, 1988; Moore Award for performance in Ragtime, Toronto, 1997; Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for performance in Ragtime, Los Angeles, 1997; Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award nomination for best lead actor in a musical for Ragtime, New York City, 1998.
Addresses: Home —Upper West Side, New York City. Agent—William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
as an actor and resident composer.” I’m one of the few lucky actors in the world. I’ve never waited tables. I never pumped gas. I’ve always earned a living. I never had to borrow from my parents. I was the first in our family to own a new car,” Mitchell told Michael Kilian of the Chicago Tribune. In 1978, Mitchell landed a major role in the television miniseries Roots: The Next Generation. A sequel to Roots, the tremendously successful 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book, Roots: The Next Generation was broadcast in February of 1979.
From 1979 to 1986, Mitchell was a regular cast member on the medical drama series Trapper John, M.D. An indirect spinoff of the long-running comedy series M.A.S.H., he played Dr. Justin” Jackpot” Jackson, a smart-mouthed young intern. Mitchell found acting in series television unfulfilling, however, and admitted that he did it primarily for the money.” I bought a house with Trapper John,” he remarked to the Los Angeles Times. Mitchell also composed the musical scores for some of the show’s episodes.
In 1987, Mitchell returned to theatrical work with a role in the musical Mail at the Pasadena Playhouse. Written by Michael Rupert, Mail centered around a young writer returning home from four months of self-imposed seclusion to find a mountain of accumulated mail. Mail had a brief run on Broadway in the spring of 1988. Edith Oliver of the New Yorker called Mail “a small, merry, unpretentious musical,” adding that Brian Mitchell was to be “especially admired” in the role of the leading man’s best friend. Mitchell’s performance in Mail earned him an award from Theatre World as one of the outstanding newcomers of the theatrical season. “I felt a little like it [the award] was New York saying ‘Come back, give it another try,’” Mitchell related to Rick Lyman of the New York Times.
In the autumn of 1990, Mitchell returned to Broadway and appeared in a revival of George and Ira Gershwin’s 1926 musical Oh, Kay! Produced by theater legend David Merrick, Oh, Kay! featured an all-African American cast including Angela Teek, Helmar Augustus Cooper, Kevin Ramsey, and Gregg Burge. In order to reflect the racial makeup of the cast, the setting of Oh, Kay! was moved from a Long Island estate to a town-house in Harlem. Mitchell played the owner of the townhouse, a young Jazz Age millionaire who falls in love with a lady bootlegger. “Oh, Kay ! at the Richard Rodgers Theatre is rollicking entertainment of the first order…Brian Mitchell as the romantic lead is the stuff matinee idols are made of,” wrote Thomas M. Disch in The Nation. David Richards of the New York Times gave an unfavorable review of Oh, Kay!, but noted that” Brian Mitchell’s matinee-idol looks and smooth singing voice serve him well.” While appearing in Oh, Kay!, Mitchell met actress Allyson Tucker and they were married in 1994.
Mitchell returned to Broadway in 1993 and replaced Gregory Hines as Jelly Roll Morton in the popular musical Jelly’s Last Jam. To prepare for the role, Mitchell took an intensive course of tap dancing lessons.” If you’re following Gregory Hines and your tap sucks then everyone is like-’well’…I just wanted to make sure my feet were in order. I wanted it to look good,” he explained to a reporter from Jet. Also appearing with Mitchell in Jelly’s Last Jam were Phylicia Rashad and Ben Vereen. Mitchell considered his stint as the arrogant, callous Jelly Roll Morton as an important turning point in his career.” I rediscovered what my strengths were. It was a return to that kind of place, where I can be dark, masculine and more charismatic,” he told David Patrick Stearns of USA Today.
In 1994, Mitchell assumed the role of Valentin in the Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. Costarring with Mitchell was Howard McGillin as Molina, a flamboyantly gay prisoner, and Chita Rivera as the Spider Woman. John Simon of New York called Mitchell’s portrayal of the hot-headed political prisoner Valentin” winningly vocal, with a remarkably flexible instrument splendid for crooning. He acts well, and does not overstress the macho aspects of the role.”
Mitchell’s success in Kiss of the Spider Woman allowed him to land the role of Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime. Both shows were produced by Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky.” When I had been doing Kiss of the Spider Woman for about a month or so, Garth came up to me and said ‘Got a show, want you to do a role in it, can’t tell you what it is.’ He did that a couple more times and finally said ‘It’s Ragtime, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. It’s your’s if you want it,’” Mitchell related to the Los Angeles Times. Drabinsky told the New York Times that Mitchell” was my first choice to play Coalhouse. It was his charisma, his wonderful baritone voice. He won my favor early on, because he’s also an incredibly hardworking, prodigious individual who cares greatly, seldom misses performances. He’s the type of person you can count on, and that in itself is a wonderful thing.” Ragtime director Frank Galati also praised Mitchell in the New York Times, “[Mitchell] moves with an extraordinary grace. Yet he is very centered, able to be very focused and still. His voice is resonant and warm in color and very rich, and when it lifts up into the atmosphere it has a brilliance and a steady burning intensity.”
Mitchell’s Ragtime character, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., is an easy-going musician who evolves into a violent revolutionary after his Model T Ford, which Walker equates with the good life in America, is vandalized by a gang of white racists.” This show has always been a comment on our country-on racism, sexism, the chasms that separate people. We’re still dealing with the problem. That’s why the show affects me so. That scene at the end, where one of the gang members tells Coalhouse, ‘You’ve lost.’ But Coalhouse says ‘You’re wrong…let them hear you.’ Let them hear you. We’re trying to say something,” Mitchell told the Chicago Tribune.
Ragtime, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, played for lengthy runs in Toronto and Los Angeles before coming to Broadway in late 1997. However, a successful run on Broadway was not guaranteed.” New York is a different kind of beast. It’s just true: Audiences here are more sophisticated. You can feel, they have this attitude of ‘been there, done that.’ You’ve got to win them,” Mitchell told the New York Times. Ragtime received mostly favorable reviews on Broadway. “Ragtime: The Musical creates a kaleidoscope whose brilliant colors glitter against a constantly threatening darkness,” wrote Michael Tueth of America, adding that” Brian Stokes Mitchell is riveting as he changes from the charming but gentlemanly entertainer in the ‘Gettin’ Ready Rag’ to the menacing figure who bellows out ‘Coalhouse Demands’.” Ben Brantley of the New York Times considered Ragtime to be somewhat cold and shallow, but had unreserved praise for Mitchell, who has an” electric presence” and” emerges as a sexy, charismatic star who finds a sinuous dignity in the persecuted Coalhouse.”
Mitchell’s performance in Ragtime earned him a Tony Award nomination for best actor, but he lost to Cabaret star Alan Cummming. Although he was excited about the nomination and hung the nomination certificate in his dressing room, Mitchell told the Chicago Tribune that he came to see that” winning awards is not why we’re doing this show…At first I started thinking about what might have happened, why the vote went as it did. But that night, doing the show, it came to me as an epiphany. A Tony Award means that you’re doing great. I’ve had my idols, Sidney Poitier, Coretta Scott King, come backstage and tell me that. But we’re here to say something.” Ragtime went on to win Tony awards for best score and best book, but lost the overall best musical award to the Disney-produced spectacle The Lion King.
In December of 1998, Mitchell gave his final performance in Ragtime. He planned to continue his work in theater and develop his skills as a singer and composer. He also expressed an interest in film roles. Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t know what’s up ahead. If it stays on the stage, great. If it goes to films, great. I’ve always felt that my career was in wiser hands than mine. Whatever in its good time is supposed to happen will happen.
America, March 28, 1998, p. 21.
Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1998, sect. 3, pp. 1, 4; August 23, 1998, sect. 7, p. 9.
Jet, June 20, 1983, p. 57; August 16, 1993, p. 58.
Los Angeles Times, June 12, 1997, Calendar sect., p.6; June 29, 1997, Calendar sect., pp. 5, 84.
Nation, December 17, 1990, pp. 782-83.
Newsweek, January 26, 1998, p. 64.
New York, August 15, 1994, p. 46.
New Yorker, April 25, 1988, pp. 102-03; November 12, 1990, pp. 104-05; February 2, 1998, pp. 79-80.
New York Times, April 15, 1988, p. C3; November 2, 1990, p. C1; August 8, 1993, sect. 2, p. 5; July 26, 1994, p. C15; January 19, 1998, p. E1; January 28, 1998, p. E1; July 25, 1998, sect. 2, pp. 7, 29;
People, May 11, 1997, pp. 132-33.
USA Today, July 23, 1997, p. D4; February 2, 1998, p. D4.
Washington Post, January 18, 1998, TV Week, p. 7, 42; January 19, 1998, p. C1.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Brian Stokes Mitchell website (www.brianstokes.com).
"Mitchell, Brian Stokes 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mitchell-brian-stokes-1957
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