By Donalevan Maines
Youngsters and their parents are the first to recognize out performer Thomas Hobson when he arrived in Houston last month to rehearse the role of Curtis Taylor Jr. in Dreamgirls, which Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) presents April 4–16 at the Hobby Center.
“There is nothing like kid fans,” says Hobson, who portrayed Shout for eight years on The Fresh Beat Band, a Nickelodeon TV series for preschool viewers. “Kid fans are fantastic. If you don’t have children, you probably wouldn’t know [about the show]. That’s A-OK.”
Meanwhile, Hobson didn’t know that Houston is the birthplace of Jennifer Holliday, who won the 1982 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical as Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls.
However, his plane had barely landed in Houston when Hobson met a woman who boasted that she grew up with Holliday.
“They went to church and high school together,” he says. “Jennifer Holliday is such a frickin’ legend. My mom had the great fortune of seeing the original production on Broadway. When I started acting, she would always tell me about Jennifer Holliday’s performance, how captivating she was, with this commanding presence.”
Did you know that Sheryl Lee Ralph’s understudy, as Deena Jones in the original production, was Houston’s Phylicia Rashad?
Oh, and Houston’s current superstar, Beyoncé, starred as Deena, opposite Jamie Foxx as Curtis, in the 2006 film version of Dreamgirls.
So, no pressure.
“It is very, very humbling,” Hobson says, regarding the show’s Houston connections. “I hope we do it justice, because we owe them so much.”
The movie landed two Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Hudson as Effie. Eddie Murphy was nominated for Best Supporting Actor as James “Thunder” Early.
The Broadway production, which was directed and co-choreographed by the late, out legend Michael Bennett, won seven Tony Awards, including Best Leading Actor in a Musical for Ben Harney, in the Berry Gordy-esque role that Hobson plays in Houston.
The TUTS cast also stars Phoenix Best as Deena, Ta’Nika Gibson as Lorrell Robinson, and Zonya Love as Effie, who is entrusted with the iconic ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
“A careful and exhaustive series of auditions in three cities has led us to this superlative company of triple threats,” explains director Sheldon Epps, who is the TUTS artistic advisor. “The cast is deeply gifted in every way. I know that they will generously give their artistry to this very special show in vivacious performances that will give this material a vibrant and exciting new life.”
Hobson agrees, “The level of talent in the show is insane.”
Kerrisa Arrington plays Michelle Morris, E. Clayton Cornelious is James “Thunder” Early, and Wonza Johnson appears as Effie’s brother, songwriter C.C. White.
“Ten years ago, I played C.C. and fell in love with the show,” says Hobson. “I’ve waited for the right production to pay Curtis, and I think this is it.”
Rounding out the cast in the ensemble are Courtney Blackburn, Natalie Kaye Clater, Tiffany Adeline Cole, Kevin Curtis, Sheldon Henry, April Holloway, Sheila Jones, Logan Keslar, Travis Patton, Armando Reinaldo, Terrance Spencer, and Borris York.
Hobson grew up in Upland Hills, California, making him a native of the Los Angeles area. “We’re rare,” he says.
At age six, he says, “I saw some kids on television, and I begged my parents to let me audition for theater and TV. It took me about six months to book my first job, and they let that become my extracurricular activity.
“My very first TV guest star spot was on 227 with Marla Gibbbs, and I have very fond memories of that,” he says. “I remember it vividly. I played a kid who the family hosted at a Christmas dinner. I was a rude, little, sassy orphan.”
A highlight of his credits has been playing multiple characters on Rachel Dratch’s Late Night Snack, including turns as former Texas Rangers baseball slugger Sammy Sosa and the late Frederick Douglass, whom President Donald J. Trump recently learned was a 19th-century abolitionist and orator.
“That was great,” says Hobson. “I got to have some fun with that, re-posting photographs of myself as [Frederick Douglass] on social media.”
Hobson has also guest-starred on memorable episodes of TV’s NCIS: Los Angeles and Criminal Minds.
The actor’s “coming out” story, however, was “very undramatic,” he says.
“The only thing they might have been mad about is that I waited so long,” he explains. “I was 25, so it took me a little longer. So many friends had told me such tragic stories about what happened when they came out to their parents that I guess I wanted to be happy with myself and my life, first, and to be very comfortable. I came out to them with a smile.”
TUTS calls Dreamgirls “a love letter to a time when the music of Motown reigned supreme.”
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.tuts.com.