“We have a true love for each other,” reveals Ephraim Sykes of the cast and creative team for “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations” now on Broadway. The actor portrays legendary tenor David Ruffin in the hit musical and was recently nominated for the Drama League Award for his performance. He praises the “synergy” and “family-like vibe” of the cast as one of the many reasons this project resonates with him. Watch the full exclusive video interview above.
From the very beginning, the pieces were in place for a harmonious experience. Sykes auditioned for the show’s initial production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2017. Despite being in Los Angeles for pilot season, the actor fell in love with the script. And when he heard past collaborators Sergio Trujillo (choreographer) and Derrick Baskin (Otis Williams) were attached, “it seems like this has to happen.”
“I’ve never been somebody who really loved the spotlight,” admits Sykes. That made diving into the cocky, attention-seeking Ruffin’s skin a challenge. “I had to work to tap into not only who he is as a performer, but who he is as a man. His pain, his heartache.” The actor found similarities with the late Temptation in their religious upbringing. Both men grew up in a gospel church setting, and their similar understanding of God opened a window for Sykes to relate to Ruffin.
The gospel background also came in handy when it came time to find Ruffin’s sound. The singer had an iconic raspy tenor. It’s much different than the clear tones Sykes is used to singing in, but he understood “the growl and grit” found in Ruffin’s voice. “It’s a preaching sound,” Sykes says, and he used his knowledge of the raw emotion and shouting that comes with such a sound to “not necessarily mimic his voice, but mimic his pain.” Through this lens, the essence of David Ruffin is conjured on stage eight times a week.
“Ain’t Too Proud” has become more than just a show for Sykes. “Art always is kind of therapeutic to me,” he says, “I get to reflect on things that I’ve gone through in my life as well.” That reflection happens during an emotional send-off for Ruffin. The singer eventually succumbed to his drug addiction and died of an overdose. Sykes confesses that “it’s a dark place I have to go,” but the final goodbye is played so touchingly that he describes it as a “gratifying” moment to “encompass all that he is.”
Equally gratifying is the chance to perform alongside four other talented black actors at the helm of the musical. An unfortunate rarity. “I literally cannot remember a time when there were five black leads of a show,” says Sykes. He hopes “Ain’t Too Proud” is arriving at a time where it can add to important conversations about what types of diverse stories are needed on Broadway. For Sykes, that affects not just the creatives, but who is in the audience. “I get to look in the audience and see people who look like me” he says. “It’s special to me to feel like there’s a place in the theater where we belong. We hold space.”
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