The Museum of the Bible (400 4th St., S.W.) opened in November and already secured a touring Broadway show for audiences to enjoy. “Amazing Grace” tells the story of John Newton, a slave trader turned abolitionist, who would eventually devote his life to God and penned the lyrics to the iconic hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
Out actor James Tarrant, 25, hails from Brooklyn and has just wrapped an eight-week run at the Museum of the Bible as part of the “Amazing Grace” cast. He portrays a number of characters in the musical but Mr. Whitley, the music director that female lead Mary Catlett studies under, is his biggest role.
Tarrant spoke with the Washington Blade about the logistics behind a non-Equity production, his experience being an openly gay man working at the Museum of the Bible and if he thinks the museum has a place in the LGBT community.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How did you get started acting?
JAMES TARRANT: I was in a school show at 4 years old. That was the first time I ever got on stage. I played Saint Nicholas in a Christmas pageant. They had all these saints give an angel these new pairs of shoes and she didn’t like any of them. The only one with a stand-out solo was Saint Nicholas. They had all the boys and girls in school try out for it. They gave it to me. So that was the first time I really got on stage and every opportunity I’ve had since then I’ve been performing.
BLADE: How did you get involved with “Amazing Grace”? Did you need your actor’s Equity card?
TARRANT: I did not. The whole production is completely non-union. We are working alongside Troika, which is the largest non-union touring company. When I first auditioned they didn’t set a national tour but they had been in talks about it for a while. I happened to see one of my friends like a post on Facebook about the audition. Brad Watkins, our company manager, put up the audition notice. I saw it, I read it and I was like, “Oh, I actually might be good for this. Let me submit.” So I submitted. I came down and auditioned. We had three audition days. The initial audition they had the first day of call backs and then they had the second day of call backs. A few weeks later, they offered me the role.
BLADE: Once you got the role, how intense was the rehearsal process?
TARRANT: It was a condensed version of what I think they would do on Broadway. We rehearsed six days a week. We had between eight-10 hour rehearsals. We kept with Equity breaks. We got an hour for lunch. We did 10-12 hours in tech week. Now (during the Museum of the Bible run), we’re performing eight shows a week like a normal Broadway show. Tuesday-Sunday, performing twice on Wednesday and Saturday.
BLADE: What’s been the audience’s reception?
TARRANT: They absolutely love it. Every night we receive a standing ovation even before we bow. The final song of the show is “Amazing Grace.” We make the audience wait until the end of the show to give them “Amazing Grace.” People cry, a lot of people raise their hands. At the end, after we take the company bow, we sing a reprise of “Amazing Grace” and we don’t tell the audience that they have to sing with us. But they always sing with us. It’s really beautiful to see that this story has moved them and hopefully has planted a seed to take for the rest of their lives to go out and do good. Whether it’s a religious experience or not, it doesn’t have to be. Being a better person isn’t a religious thing. So seeing John Newton become a better person hopefully inspires them to be better in their own lives.
BLADE: What’s your religious affiliation?
TARRANT: I grew up Catholic. I now identify as non-denominational Christian. I believe that people have their own way of worshipping. If they believe that something exists that makes them want to be a better person, there is no wrong way to believe. Whether you believe in God or Jesus, or just goodness overall, that it doesn’t have a person or divine spirit, worship it. I personally believe in Christianity but I love that people are inspired to do better in any faith.
BLADE: Were you ever concerned about being openly gay and working with the Museum of the Bible?
TARRANT: At first, maybe. They have been absolutely nothing but welcoming. I heard reports before I even went there that they weren’t including a lot of polarizing conservative views, which gave me hope that they were staying away from certain topics that weren’t explicitly spoken of in the Bible. That gave me hope for not being judged in any way. Since actually working there I have seen nothing but kindness. I don’t pretend that I am anything but a gay man, especially if I’m coming into your space and doing theater. You’ve gotta know there’s at least an 80 percent chance. No one’s ever spoken about (homosexuality) in the Bible. I’ve gone through the exhibits, there’s nothing that’s polarizing in any way. It’s been a tremendous experience.
BLADE: Do you know if there are any other gay people who work at the museum?
TARRANT: Absolutely. They have staff there who are in managerial positions who are. I don’t need to ask them but you definitely can tell. They’re comfortable, they’re happy where they are. They’ve obviously been there from the very beginning. It’s a very inclusive work environment.
BLADE: What are your plans after the musical wraps?
TARRANT: We actually start our national tour. We have a week break and then we start a three-month tour in Connecticut. We perform in 27 states after we open. I’ll be doing that until April and then I will be back in New York City.
BLADE: With all that touring, do you have a boyfriend?
TARRANT: I do not. I am single as a Pringle.
BLADE: What would you say to any LGBT people hesitant to check out Museum of the Bible?
TARRANT: If what they’re looking for is some history behind the Bible, not necessarily looking to be belabored with the typical conservative view that we see, if they’re looking for an understanding behind the reasoning for devout Christianity and, in fact, all other religions because we all have texts of worship, they should absolutely check it out. I have not experienced any type of discrimination in any way. I have not felt forced to worship in any way but my own. It’s really just a historical look at how Christianity came to be. That’s one of the main things that gives Christianity validity is the historical accuracy of the Bible and how long people have written these things down. Whether you believe them to be true or not, parables can teach us things. The gospels can teach us things. If you’re not necessarily religious, go for the historical aspect of it. I think they will be pleasantly surprised by how well done and beautiful the museum is.