Featured photo: J Andrew Speas headshot (photo by Curtis and Cort Photography)
It was just a few years ago that actor J. Andrew Speas was spending his afternoons working part time at Sam’s Club. His big role? Passing out free food.
“I had to take the time to grow up,” he says of that period of his life. “I was working at Sam’s Club giving out samples, which is probably the best acting gig you could have.”
At the time, Speas had just left the opera program at UNCSA and was contemplating making the move to UNCG. In the fall of 2017, he started in UNCG’s theater program.
Now, less than five years later, Speas has been cast as the standby for Genie in the Broadway musical Aladdin. Less than a year out of college, the 25-year-old reflects on the last few years of his life, which have been rife with uncertainty and turmoil. Much of it started that fall in 2017.
Bringing change to UNCG and the 2020 Summer of Uprising
“It was really fulfilling because I came in and was a big fish in a small pond,” Speas says of his transfer to UNCG. “It wasn’t missed by anyone that I had come from UNCSA.”
As someone with the acting and singing chops needed to enroll in the public arts conservatory, Speas became a fairly well-known entity in UNCG’s smaller theater program. But coming into the program as a queer, Black man, Speas immediately noticed some things that were amiss.
“My introduction into the department was that lots of people felt like they were missing opportunities,” he says. “They were missing out on opportunities to be cast, and I had a big question about that. There was also a question of how Black students in particular existed in the department and what their function was.”
This was five years ago before the uprisings of 2020, when more in-depth conversations about race took place in society. But Speas, whose mom taught him from a young age to speak up if something was wrong, felt he had to voice his concerns.
“My mother would say, ‘If you don’t like something, you have to change it,’” Speas explains. “I used to hate it, because I was like, I don’t want to do that work. But if I don’t, maybe no one else will, and I would have just existed at that time.”
Speas had been fielding concerns from several Black theater students at the time. One of the biggest issues was the predominantly white theater department’s lack of awareness when it came to a particular production that was put on in the fall of 2018. The work, titled We’re Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, is a play written by Black playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury. While the work is categorized as a comedy and drama, the story tackles heavy topics such as genocide, cultural appropriation and the violence of racism.
“All of the Black students who had seen this show told me that it was traumatic,” Speas recalls. “And I was like, It can’t be that traumatic, it’s theater. And I go, and I’m like, Oh no, it’s trauma. By the end of the play, I was in the audience sobbing, convulsively sobbing.”
The issue for Speas and the Black students who saw the work wasn’t the play itself. It was the faculty’s lack of awareness and care for the Black students who had to be repeatedly exposed to the traumatic narratives for their coursework.
That’s when Speas crafted a letter. It called out the theater department’s ignorance and lack of diversity in faculty which lit a flame within the community.
“It traveled from our school down to Florida and back again,” Speas says. “It kind of just blew up. I sort of, at the time, became the voice of students of color in the department.”
The school quickly realized its shortcomings and asked Speas to join in consultation meetings and an audit for the theater program. He even helped hire a new theater director, Natalie Sowell, who joined the department in the spring of 2020.
“There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me on the staff,” Speas says. “There were a lot of students who looked like me, but not the staff. All of a sudden, [the university] started cleaning house. They realized that the students had been right.”
Then in June 2020, George Floyd was murdered. And that’s when Speas really amplified his voice.
“Doing all of those things at UNCG, I became really aware,” he says. “I remember my best friend sending me a message saying, ‘We have to do something.’ And I took a deep breath and I said, ‘You’re right.’”
For the next several weeks, Speas joined other activists in the community and organized and led protests and marches across the city. He learned from those he lovingly calls elders who taught him how to be an activist. And he drew from his theater training, too.
“My training helped me realize that I could do lots of things in a short amount of time because a rehearsal is a quick turnaround,” Speas says. “In acting school they say that every single line you say is life and death, and I realized that summer was that it really was life or death. You just don’t expect your voice to be that loud.”
Landing his dream role and moving to NY
As Speas talks into the camera he smiles warmly, his charisma emanating from beyond the computer screen. He sits in a plain room with white-painted walls and looks at ease. But it wasn’t always this easy.
In October 2021, a few months after graduating from UNCG, Speas moved to New York City. He had done his senior showcase virtually for school and landed an agent. He felt like he was one of the lucky ones who had made it.
“I booked Spamilton and then my agent told me that they wanted to see me for Aladdin,” he says. “And I was like, Oh, it’s time.”
He was living in Harlem and working for an afterschool program when the person he was renting from kicked him out of the apartment. Suddenly, Speas was homeless.
“I had these two big suitcases, a duffle bag and a CPAP machine, and I was running all over the city trying to find somewhere to stay,” he says. “I was calling shelter after shelter. I never thought I would be there.”
As a hail Mary Speas called his boss at the afterschool program and told her what had happened.
“She told me, ‘You’re coming home with me,’ and I burst into tears,” Speas recalls. “Then I moved in with her sister. When you talk about community support and mutual aid, those girls were the blueprint. They joke all the time about how they’re always taking in strays. They helped me through all of it.”
For the next two months, Speas went through rounds of auditions for the Genie in the Broadway production of Aladdin. It was a role that he had dreamt about since he was a child.
“I am this boy from Winston-Salem who went to school in Greensboro, and all of a sudden I’m in New York City auditioning,” Speas says. “This was my dream role. Aladdin was the first time I saw a Black man my size on Broadway.”
For decades, stars like James Monroe Iglehart and Michael James Scott have played the iconic role on stage, which was first popularized by late actor Robin Williams in the 1992 animated film.
After auditions went well, Speas attended a three-day “Genie bootcamp” where he worked the material repeatedly so he would be ready for the final audition to take place in front of the full team in March of this year. Less than 24 hours after his final audition, Speas got the call while he was at work. He had landed the role as a standby for the upcoming tour. (A standby is an actor who is ready to fill the role in the event the lead cannot perform).
“I literally collapsed into a chair,” he says. “I was crying and I went through this mental list of who has to know.”
On Aug. 15, Speas was finally able to tell the world about his new role and starting Thursday, he’ll start rehearsals. The tour’s first stop is in New York on Oct. 11. From April 5-9, Speas will be returning to North Carolina for shows in Charlotte.
And while he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt or miss a show, Speas says with a sly smile, “If you wish hard enough you may see me as the Genie.”
The most fun part about the role for Speas, is how much he brings to the beloved character. Really, he says, the Genie isn’t that different from his own bubbly personality.
“I was like, Oh my god, I get to be me on stage,” he says. “What a joy.”
Speas is also a swing for two other characters in the show — Babkak and the Sultan — which means he has to learn the lines and be capable of filling either of those roles at a moment’s notice, too.
“Standys are the cornerstones of shows,” Speas says proudly. “They’ve kept so many shows going.”
Speas shares that the funniest thing about landing the role of Genie is that this isn’t the first time he’s auditioned for the part.
“I auditioned in DC when I was a freshman at UNCSA and didn’t book,” Speas says. “But my parents were like, ‘You can speak everything you want into existence.’ So I just started saying things like, ‘I’m going to be on Broadway.’ Now, I can say that 80 percent of the things that I have said, I have accomplished…. You can’t anticipate that your dreams will come true, but my dreams have really come true and I’m only 25; I just left school.”
As for the trials and tribulations he went through to get here, Speas says he has no regrets.
“To be here at this moment feels full circle and beautiful,” he says. “To be able to share it with people who have watched me since those early stages in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, I’m beyond thankful. It is one of the most gratifying and world shattering moments in a beautiful way.”
Learn more about the 2022-23 North American tour of Aladdin on the website here. Follow Speas’ journey on his Instagram at @jdaspeas.
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