Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with actor Jhardon DiShon Milton about his work on the bandaged place.
Leah Reddy: What is your theatre origin story?
Jhardon DiShon Milton: I actually wanted to play sports. To be very specific, I wanted to run track, but I knew I could always sing and play the piano. A lady at my church convinced my mom to sign me up for a theatre program at the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, Texas. My mom and I go back and forth on whether I was seven or 10. I think I was 10. She thinks I was seven. But she signed me up for a summer program, and the very first show that I did was School House Rock Live. I will never forget getting in the car after that performance and telling her, "I want to do that for the rest of my life. Forget track, forget all of the other stuff." And she, to the best of her ability, made sure it happened. She made sure that I continued to go to the Ensemble Theatre. That was my first professional show. And then I went to the performing arts high school in Houston, and went to college for, and got a degree in, musical theatre. And here I am. Here I am, living out my dream.
LR: As you grew as a theatre artist, were there any particularly inspirational figures or mentors for you?
JM: I feel like every year, I'm inspired by something or someone that makes me say, "I can't stop. I have to keep going." Specifically, when I was younger: Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington. I loved seeing them everywhere. I loved watching their movies. I loved watching Jamie's TV show and then him going into film. Even now, I think that they are brilliant, brilliant artists. [Denzel Washington] is why I love to do dramas. I don't mind comedy, but Denzel, he's stuck with drama. I'm like, "I want to do that, I want to do that, I want to do that, I want to do that." Those two are the main two figures who I looked up to growing up a lot.
LR: You studied musical theatre and most of your career has been in musicals – you’ve done two on Broadway, Tina and A Bronx Tale. the bandaged place is not a musical. What attracted you to this show? What excites you about it?
JM: It's what I told the playwright [Harrison David Rivers] . I've shared this with him a couple times now: the language is just so real. When I first read this script, I was like, "I know this. I know this person, I know these people." It's just authentic language that feels good. There's a lot happening in it, but it feels right. It's easily relatable. And so, reading it, I just thought, "I like this. I want to do it." I see myself in Jonah, the character that I'm playing. I see myself in him a thousand times over. I see my mom in the grandmother character. I've been in a toxic relationship with somebody like Ruben. I think I was immediately like, "Oh, I can tap into this."
And you're right, it's a play. I have not done a play since graduating college. So it's really scary and tricky to go from years of musicals and having to stop, not rely on song and dance, and really tap into the language of a piece. But it's a good challenge. I love it. I love it.
LR: The Black Black is a very different space from a Broadway house or even from a large regional house or a touring house. Are you thinking about that as a performer? What do you see as the challenges or the possibilities?
JM: I wasn't thinking about it until we started staging. The [stage manager] mapped out the stage in the rehearsal room and they were like, "So this is how big the stage will be. This is where the audience will be." It's very, very intimate. I'm like, "Whoa." I'm used to not seeing people. I wear glasses, but when I'm on stage, I don't wear glasses, so I'm used to everybody being blurry. So, that first day I was like, "Oh, wow. Okay, cool. They're going to be legit in my face." Then I stopped thinking about it because I'm just like, "Great. Then that means I really have to attack this role, attack this play. There's no phoning it in."
I don't necessarily phone in because I love my job so much. Even when I'm doing a musical in a big house, I can't phone it in because I just love it. But even if I did, there's no room to do so here because it's so intimate. I can't say exactly what they're doing with the set, but the set also doesn't give room to do any of those things. It's going to be interesting. I'm very interested to see how I respond once I'm physically in the space and how other people, the audience, experience it as well.
LR: You alluded to similarities between yourself and the character Jonah. He is a dancer, an injured dancer, and as a musical theatre performer dance is a big part of your work. How are you exploring movement and dance in the world of this play?
JM: It's interesting. In rehearsal, I have to practice minimizing my movement. When I'm in a musical and I'm on stage, as soon as [I hear] “places and go” and the lights hit and the overture starts or the beginning of the show starts, I'm like, "Cool, cool, cool. We're in, we're in." And then I forget. I black out. Not being able to do that is hard for Jonah, me being Jonah, it's really hard. Even just the smallest movement, the smallest step. I have to remind myself, "No, you have an injury. You can't do this. You can't sit this way."
There will be moments where we see Jonah move. I think people will see Jonah already, but when he dances, it's my prayer that they fall in love with him even more and, not sympathize, I don't want him to have sympathy, but just to really see him.
LR: Is there anything I haven't asked you about the show that you want to share with students and with general audiences?
JM: I think the play is very important. I always ask myself when I get an audition or when I'm asked to do something, a project, "Well, why does it matter? Why am I doing this? What is the end [goal]?" When I got this audition, looking at this script, I was like, "Oh, no, this matters. This is very important." What's so beautiful about it is it's not a play about a gay man. And I'm very particular about shows that do that. This is a show about a human. This is a show about a man, someone, a person who is looking to be healed and is having a hard time doing so, physically and emotionally and mentally. I think everyone who comes to see this show will see that. I think they will see themselves. I think they will look at the relationship that Jonah has with his grandmother, his daughter, with Ruben, and with his daughter's dance teacher, and I think that they will see those relationships will mirror relationships that they've had.
LR: What advice do you have for young actors, people who want to get into acting?
JM: Keep going. If you really want it, work very hard. Ask as many questions as you possibly can because there are no stupid questions. If you ask the question and you feel like it doesn't make sense, someone will help it make sense. Keep going because it's a tough business. It's really, really tough. There are a lot of moments where you will feel like, "This may not be the moment for me, this may not be the time." Or, "Maybe I should switch, maybe I should move." But keep going.
I'm a man of God, I'm a man of faith. So I'm always praying and always crying. To myself. I never cry in front of people, but to myself. Just really asking for guidance and patience with myself, mostly, as I journey through this industry. Even doing this show now, I prayed for it, but years ago. And it's now happening. So yeah, my main thing is for real, keep going.