“Tiny Beautiful Things” actor Akeem Davis talks about his role; on stage now at Arden Theatre.

-Brenda Hillegas

Now playing at the Arden Theatre- Tiny Beautiful Things, a stage version of Cheryl Strayed‘s best selling book that collects highlights of The Rumpus’s “Dear Sugar” advice columns. The play explores Strayed’s time as the advice columnist and her anonymous, unpaid work that was published between 2010-2010. Actress/producer/screenwriter Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) adapted Tiny Beautiful Things for the stage along with Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail.

We spoke with one of the show’s actors, Akeem Davis, about his role in the show, what he enjoys reading, and why he came to Philadelphia from Miami to peruse a career in theatre. Davis was the 2015 F. Otto Haas Emerging Theatre Artist Award winner and was also nominated in the Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play category for Gem of the Ocean at this year’s Barrymore Awards.

image0Q: What are some of your earliest theatre memories and why did you decide to pursue a career in theatre?
A: In first grade I was a precocious, talkative kid. One day after class, a teacher gave me an ultimatum- I could go to detention and have my parents called or I could join the oratorical contest.  I did my first Theodore L. Gibson Oratorical Contest with a poem titled, “Be a Man, Boy, Be a Man”. I remember how easily I took to learning my lines, speaking with confidence, and filling the auditorium with my voice. Rehearsal and company dynamic all felt so natural for me.  I’ve been acting ever since.

Q: Why did you decide to move to Philadelphia?
A: I’m from Miami and I went to Florida State University.  When I was there I met Geoffrey Kershner and Jennifer Sassaman who told me about Philadelphia and D.C. as prime regional theatre markets. I toured Philadelphia and DC for about two weeks. I remember seeing Three Penny Opera at The Arden and The Scottish Play at The Wilma.  It wasn’t until I got an offer to be involved in an exhibit at the National Constitution Center that I made the decision to move to Philadelphia.  That was my first professional gig. 

Q: In Tiny Beautiful Things, you play “Writer #1”. What can you tell us about this character?
What rehearsals unearthed – a bit surprisingly – was a natural tension that exists between Sugar and my character.  I think we’ve done a lot of good work to tease that out and make it full and complex, about two people working to connect on shared terms rather than the friction that con come from disdain.  Otherwise, I get to play a bunch of open-hearted people facing a myriad of challenging decisions and complications.  

Q: Were you familiar with the book before joining the cast? How did you prepare for the role?
A: Before this show, the only sugar I was familiar with came in white and yellow box!  I had never heard of the column, or even the website that hosted the column. I was impressed to learn the kind of community the column and podcast had cultivated.  People were interested, for sure! To prepare for the work I really honed-in on the dilemmas my writers face. The supreme task is to make the letters as active and lived-in as possible. To do that, in my preliminary work, I did my best to eschew any contemplative feels and lean into the unique need presented.  

Q: The play focuses on a writer’s time as an anonymous advice columnist. What is the best advice you have ever received?
A: The best advice I’ve ever received has come from my parents.  My mother has always told me, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” My father once told me, “Money is the cheapest price to pay for anything in this life.” Both of those wisdoms have greatly influenced how I approach everything from the cost of dinner to which projects I decide to audition for or take on. 

Q: Is there any bit of advice you love sharing with people?
A: I LOVE to give my perspective but I shy away from giving advice.  

Q: Are there any newspaper or web columns (advice or other) that you enjoy reading currently?
A: I can’t stop reading articles about sports and the cultural reverberations that follow in their wake!  Sport, I find, is another form of theatre and some of the most popular drama society engages with.  Sports journalism reports at a nexus of culture, class, race, and even geo-political diplomatic relations that I’m addicted to!

Q: What have been some of your favorite roles to date?
A: I’ve been truly fortunate in the opportunities I’ve received.  Some career highlights have been Oshoosi in The Brothers Size, Lancelot in District Merchants and Citizen in Gem of the Ocean.

Tiny Beautiful Things is at the Arden Theatre now through December 8th. For more tickets and info, click here.

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