Phillip James Brannon | Performer of the week

Shan�sia Davis�and Phillip James Brannon in Immediate Family

Shan�sia Davis�and Phillip James Brannon in Immediate Family Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Coming out is hard, and Jesse makes it even harder by trying to pass his white boyfriend off as the photographer for his brother’s upcoming wedding. Phillip James Brannon gives an inspired performance as Jesse in Paul Oakley Stovall's Immediate Family, whether he’s performing a victory dance with his lesbian best friend or having a shouting match in the kitchen with his conservative sister. An army brat born in Columbia, South Carolina, Brannon lived in multiple cities along the East Coast before coming to Chicago to study at the Theatre School at DePaul. Since graduating in 2006, he’s become one of the city’s fastest rising talents, working with theaters like Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Chicago Shakespeare. Brannon speaks to us about working with director Phylicia Rashad, balancing multiple high-profile projects, and how his coming out experience compared to Jesse’s.

What was your reaction when you found out Phylicia Rashad was directing the show?

Am I still in it? (Laughs.)

So you were cast before?

Yeah. [Immediate Family] has been in process for a long time, there have been workshops and things done. When I found out that she was taking the lead on the project, I was shocked in a good way. I was her escort when she was honored at the Theatre School gala my senior year of college; that’s when I first met her. I spent the evening with her and at the end, in her very sort of regal, Mother Earth kind of way, she told me that she thought our paths would cross again. You hear stuff like that and you’re like, “Oh you know, we’ll see,” and it’s six years later now. It was a very surreal moment when I heard she was directing. She was right.

But I didn’t have much time to think about it because I was in New York when I auditioned for this, and I was coming back here to do The March at Steppenwolf. Everything was happening very, very fast. I knew I was going to be starting rehearsals for The March, and I was going to have to leave that production early to step into Immediate Family, so I was doing double duty for this past month and a half. I didn’t really have much time to think about the stakes of everything or what was happening, I just wanted to make sure I was doing my job because there was a lot of work to be done. I couldn’t go there with the excitement as much as I wanted to because I felt a little overwhelmed.

How do you balance doing two shows at the same time, especially two high-profile world premieres?

I sort of just had to prepare myself for this month and a half of time. You just have to say, “This is what it’s going to be," and accept it for what it is. I can’t be surprised at being tired or stressed out or overwhelmed because I made the decision to do it and it’s crazy. That’s just the way it is. I tried to make sure I got some sleep, and I didn’t do anything, I didn’t go anywhere. Just days of working in the morning before rehearsal, going to rehearsal, going to the show, memorizing new lines for Immediate Family at night after The March—because it was new, we were getting new pages and lines every day, through tech and previews—so it was like a little boot camp. I had to know I wasn’t going to have any free time to talk to anyone; I didn’t talk to my mother for weeks. But I knew it would just be this little chunk of time, and then I would be able to breathe again.

What is Phylicia like as a director?

The thing I love the most about her is her attention to detail. I love that combination of her being an actor and director, because we think similarly about moments and how to connect a moment. She plays such close attention to the smallest moments that other directors may let you just figure out. That was the thing that struck me most, where I wouldn’t expect to hear something, or a moment that I wouldn’t expect her to comment on, she would. Then it would open the whole scene up in a different way that would make sense to play.

What was your coming out experience like? Was it anything like Jesse’s?

Not at all. I was a teenager. The line in the play that I say, that I think is actually quite true, Jesse says, “It’s not my responsibility to spell out the obvious.” And I think that’s how I thought. We do have the same process, the same thinking in that way. I didn’t act any different or feel like I was trying to be a whole different person from who I was, but I just figured they know, so I shouldn’t make a big thing about it. And my mother asked me one day when I was 16, because of a phone conversation that she had heard the night before, when I wasn’t supposed to be on the phone. In the morning, first she chastised me about being on the phone when I wasn’t supposed to be, and then she asked me if I was gay. And I was speechless, I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say the words, and eventually I just nodded my head and started crying.

My mother is the best mother in the world. She’s a dream, and I realize how fortunate I am for that. She told me she was mad that I hadn’t told her sooner. She thought our bond was so strong and she thought that we were so close and she loves me so much that it hurt her that I even had to keep it a secret for that amount of time. Some people can’t tell their parents until way later in their lives, and I was so fortunate that she knew and was so supportive when I was 16 years old.

I didn’t officially come out to my dad—they’re still married—until I was out of college, and I think he knew, but it was something we never talked about. My father, he’s a military man, not a super sensitive or affectionate guy, but he also took it far better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve been very fortunate that way. I didn’t have the whole Jesse/Evy experience like in Immediate Family. But I do have family members that could possibly react like that. Not my parents or siblings or anything like that, but the things Evy says in the play, I have definitely heard things like that from family members of mine.

Why do you think it’s important for audiences to see this play?

Because it is absolutely relevant and so true to today, and what is going on with so many people and families. Homosexuality is getting more popularized and commercial in television and the stories that we’re seeing. We’re talking about it. And this play talks about the conversation that’s being had and you’ve got to listen to it. There’s a lot of homophobia in the black community, and the fact that it gets discussed and dealt with the way that it does in this play is important because it doesn’t get discussed and dealt with. We talk about it in other conversations, but it doesn’t get put on stage or in a movie explicitly. And people after the show are saying that they’re seeing their story, or a version of their story, that they’ve never seen explored like that in media before.

Immediate Family runs through July 8 at Goodman Theatre (170 N Dearborn St, 312-443-3800). Read our review of Immediate Family.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)