A couple of years ago I was able to check out Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The show was excellent and so was the cast, which included James T. Lane who was reprising the role of Ozie Powell that he played on Broadway. I walked away thinking that each actor excelled as dancers, singers and actors. They were true triple threats.
Cut to today and Lane, after starring on Broadway in Chicago as Billy Flynn, is now the star of his own one man show, Triple Threat. The show tells “a particular story” of his life, he told me recently. And what a story it is. An “against-all-odds rise in entertainment to near death cataclysmic fall” and back again to the top of his field. He acts, sings and dances through stories from his life and Acting, singing, and dancing his way through pivotal scenes from his life and by the end you’ll definitely see why it’s called Triple Threat.
In this interview, Lane talks about the early beginnings of the show, playing people from his life (including younger versions of himself) and why he didn’t want to sugar-coat his story. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video above or on our YouTube channel.
For more info on James and Triple Threat, click here.
Can you tell me about the show and how it started?
James T. Lane: Well, the show, it’s called Triple Threat, and it started out as a commission from the Young Vic when I was working over in London in 2015. David Lan, the artistic director at the time, just encouraged me to write and I pitched him an idea about Sammy Davis Jr. After that, he said to me, “I’m interested in you.” No one had ever said that to me before. And he asked me if I write? At that point, I had written some stuff in high school but nothing professional. And he said, “Well, what would you write?” I’m 18 years free of drugs and alcohol, so, I started writing about these experiences that I had when I was out there as an active drug addict and alcoholic. He was looking at me and he was like, “That is not the person that I see in front of me. That’s interesting, keep writing.” And that turned into the commission.
I was given a collaborator, David Thompson, who wrote the book and The Scottsboro Boys and got a Tony nomination for the book of New York, New York. In the beginning it was a big play, 12 characters and I was writing and writing and writing. And then the collaboration ended because the commission ended and so I retained all the rights to my story and my writing.
While I was in the Chicago area playing Bert in Mary Poppins, I pulled it out and started working on it again and I decided to read it aloud by myself. I put on a playlist of music and got a big jug of water and just read it aloud by myself. And that’s when I realized, “Oh my God, this s a one-man show.” All of the people that I had made characters of, I knew personally. I’d run into them on the streets, or they were my mother or my drug counselor or lovers or friends, all of that. I was telling it from a particular perspective, and it would be secondhand if I’d given them to other people to play.
On the opening night of this run, how satisfying was it after everything you went through to get the show to where it is today?
James T. Lane: It’s interesting because it’s been satisfying in a lot of ways. Actually getting into the rehearsal room was absolutely astonishing when we started the off-Broadway run. But opening night is more like, your baby is out in the world. That’s what this feels like. And my baby’s out in the world and other people are responding to it. In particular, I am most touched by young black gay men who are responding and feel seen by the work. It feels like the beginning of something new, so it doesn’t feel like an ending or like this is done, it feels like it’s launched into something new.
At what point in writing did you come up with the title?
James T. Lane: That came late. It was right before the pandemic, I believe. It was called Four and a Half Years for a long time. I don’t want to give too much away because I want people surprised by what it is but the idea of being a triple threat is not always what you think it is. And particularly in my show, there’s a new definition of that, but that came late in the game.
It’s funny because people come and they know my resume and they’re like, “Oh, we’re gonna see James sing and dance and act,” and they just get so much more.
How many characters in total are you playing?
James T. Lane: It’s about 20, yeah. And that’s on stage, in projections and that is in voice-over.
These are people from your real life?
James T. Lane: Absolutely. I mean, most of the names have been changed, but these are people that I met while I was drinking and using. This is my mom, it’s the drug counselor, the drug dealer, I didn’t know his name. “Hey, how you doing Tom? Yeah, I’m doing well. You take credit cards?” No, none of that, they don’t have names, so I’ve assigned them names. But these are real people that I met along the way. I’ve gone back to Philadelphia and some people are still traveling those same spaces and places doing the same thing.
20 characters. I’ve been in shows where I had to play like five or maybe six characters, but 20? How did you get a handle on that?
James T. Lane: Well, I definitely think it helps to be the writer because it is something that I’ve created for them to say. But here’s the thing, my first language was movement, so movement and character are very close, like the physicality of the individual that I’m portraying. So, the key for me is the caricature, like the physicality and that’s my key in. So once I lock into that it’s like I’m in it so that I can switch into physicality and the voices are there, the postures are there, the lines are there. That’s my own personal way.
Who was the hardest character that you had to do?
James T. Lane: Oh, the hardest, and I think it’s because of emotional reasons, is my mother. But it’s also the easiest because it’s that journey that is so emotional. What I’m finding is in a run like this… my active addiction lasted for about five years, but I am telling a story from childhood all the way up until I ended addiction, so that is a whole life of living. What I’m doing in 80 minutes is I’m living through all of those emotions. I’m an actor, that’s what I do.
But the real-life emotional journey that I go on is exhausting. It’s exhausting. Where I’ve had a lifetime to process all of that, I’m doing it rapid fire. So, I have to take good care of myself. I meditate, I get lots of massages, I drink lots of water, I hang with people who uplift me and don’t tear me down. All of that stuff that gets me to the place where I can be as free as a bird on the stage.
You’re also playing versions of yourself. I would think, for me, that would be the hardest part.
James T. Lane: Taking the journey that I’ve written, it’s no joke, man, it’s no joke. Sometimes I have been caught up in the real emotional turmoil. I deal with sexual abuse in the show, so sometimes that catches me in real time, and I allow it.
It needs to feel like my living room. It needs to feel like I’m sitting in my living room on my couch in my underwear, that’s what it needs to feel like for me in terms of the ease and comfort, so we had an open rehearsal room. There’s no fourth wall as I tell the story, so if I see people that I know, I talk to them and I say, “Hey, Joe this affected me.” I talk to them as though we’re sitting across from each other, that keeps it really present, and that’s the saving grace because the wall, the isolation of it is deadly for me. I need to feel comfy, and that helps me sustain the reality.
You mentioned some of the topics that you talk about in the show. At any point during the writing, did you think, “I don’t want to say anything about this.”
James T. Lane: Nothing like that. There have been edits only because how many stories do you need to tell in a bath house? Or how many stories you need to tell while you’re smoking crack? But no, it’s authentic storytelling. I need to go there so that a person who does not have an understanding of where addiction can take you, understands when they leave after this 80 minutes. That’s why it needs to be told the way that it is being told, no holds barred. You know all of this information so that you can get a peek behind the curtain of what it’s like in the mind and in the heart of a person who struggles with sexual abuse and getting to the other side of that and addiction.
The show is 80 minutes long. It’s just you on stage singing, dancing and acting. I know after doing a show, you’ve got this adrenaline rush and then you crash. How tired are you when you get back home?
James T. Lane: That’s funny because in my experience as a performing artist, I’ve never been like, “Okay, let’s do another… ” I’m always done at the end of the show. I wanna eat and I wanna sleep. This is my first feeling of complete. I’m so exhausted, and at the same time so satisfied. Like I just… I can’t wait to get to bed. I can’t wait to drink all the electrolytes and sleep. I’ve done lots of things here in New York City, but no one has ever seen me do anything like this and my hope is that it ushers me into a whole new kind of idea of what a Triple Threat is and what I can do with that.