Javon King is an openly gay actor from New Jersey, and he is making his national tour debut with the company of “RENT.” He joins the cast with his portrayal of fan favorite Angel Dumott Schunard.
King, 21, studies musical theater at Rider University in New Jersey. He’s been in several productions at the university such as “Of Thee I Sing” and “Once on This Island.”
King says he’s shocked and ecstatic to have the opportunity to perform “RENT” nationally. King spoke with Watermark on the show’s opening night in Orlando to discuss his first memories of “RENT,” the show’s depiction of the LGBTQ experience and the complexities of playing Angel.
How did you first get involved with musical theater?
It’s actually kind of a weird story. I didn’t start musical theater until high school; before that I was an athlete. I did my first show my freshman year, which was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” My freshman year I was put into a musical theater class. The teacher at the time was encouraging us to audition for the show and I was like “I don’t know if that’s for me. I have never been on a stage before, acting and dancing and things like that.” It was really a friend of mine who was in the class with me. He was like “C’mon, just do it. You never know what happens. It’s just an audition — you go in, you sing and then you go about your business.” Then I auditioned, and I ended up getting in the ensemble and I was like “Wow, this is a lot of fun,” so I just kept auditioning throughout high school. But even then I didn’t know that I was going to do this as a career. And I really didn’t decide to do it until the end of my junior year going in to senior year of high school, which is a little late because by that point you need to start auditioning for colleges and things like that. So I was a little late to the game, but I guess it’s working out so far.
“RENT” came out in 1996, and you were born a year later. What is your first memory of the show “RENT”?
My first memory of “RENT” was the movie version. I don’t know when, but that was the first encounter I had with “RENT.” I remember when I first saw it I was younger, and I didn’t really fully understand what was going on. So now that I’m older — I’m 21 years old — and now I’m actually doing this show and it all makes sense to me, the impact of this show. It really, really impacts a lot of people; it touches a lot of people’s hearts when they see this show. I’m glad I can help tell this story in a way.
Explain your initial reaction when you found out you would be going on the road with “RENT,” your first national tour.
Oh my goodness! I was like “Are you sure this is the right person? I think you might have the wrong person.” I was really shocked, just because I’m still in college; I have one more semester left of college to do. For me to be able to take a gap year and do this tour with this type of show and be able to spread this type of message is really meaningful to me. I’m so, so happy that it is me and I’m so grateful for this opportunity. You know, we just got started a couple weeks ago, and I’m so beyond thrilled to be doing this and can’t wait to keep doing it for the next year.
In relation to its depiction of HIV/AIDS during the 1990s, do you think “RENT” is as relevant today as it was when it premiered?
Absolutely. Granted, the HIV and AIDS epidemic is not as bad as it was back then but it’s still very, very, very prominent in the gay community today. So that’s why. especially for me — I’m part of the gay community, I’m a gay man — it means a lot to me for me to be able to play Angel. You know, someone who has the disease and I can tell that story. But he tells it in such a way that you wouldn’t know unless Angel says it in the beginning of the show that he has AIDS. You know, he doesn’t walk around with a banner saying “Yeah I have AIDS, and I’m gonna mope around, and that’s how I’m going to live my life.” He completely lives it in the opposite direction. He’s always trying to see the best in other people, and he’s always trying to make the situation brighter and make things the best that it can be for that time and that moment. It really inspires me as a human being to be a better person and live my life a little more like Angel and not worry about the little thing because you’re not guaranteed tomorrow.
Who did you study or look to for inspiration when preparing to play Angel?
I love Billy Porter in “Kinky Boots.” I look at him and the way he portrayed Lola. I also looked at RuPaul and a lot of the drag queens that I’ve seen on “Drag Race.” I channel all of them and also put my own little flair, you know, who I am as a person in there. I’m very “fun-going,” [laughs], is that even a word? It is now. I look at life as a party, and I don’t mope around and things like that. So me and Angel are the same in that sense. It’s just one mosh pit of Billy Porter, RuPaul, Javon and a bunch of other queens.
Angel is such a complex character. What aspect of Angel is most difficult to embody?
Definitely embodying the fact that you have this disease, and yet that’s like an afterthought. Even at the point in Act Two when he is going through the stages of when the disease is really starting to get to him and starting to deteriorate his immune system, you still don’t see an ounce of sadness from him. He doesn’t want anyone to feel bad for him. He’s like “No, I think it’s my time,’ and at the end of the day he’s still giving love as he’s leaving the show. So I think for me that was probably one of the hardest things, was trying to figure out how to — even though, you know character-wise he’s losing his life — how to continue to give love to people and not make it about himself, or myself.
How do you juggle going to school and forwarding your career?
Oh Lord, that is the million-dollar question. It is so hard being a student and trying to do musical theater as a living because musical theater on its own is just its own entity and it’s its own big thing where you have to put 110 percent into it. At the end of the day, being a student — being a full-time student — is the same thing because you can’t be flunking out of school just because you have some auditions and things like that. So luckily back in high school I kind of learned how to really manage my time wisely, having rehearsals late at night but then having school all day. And it got a little easier for me when I got to college. I have to make sure I do homework first, or do homework while I’m on break for rehearsals and find time to study so I’m not up until 2 o’clock in the morning so I don’t get bags under my eyes because that’s not cute. So yeah, it’s really about time management. But at the end of the day it’s a lot of fun; I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
What is the number one production you hope to be in one day?
So many. Can I do two? I really want to be in “Lion King,” and I really want to be in “Kinky Boots.” Those are the big two I really want to be in. For “Lion King,” I would either like to be in the dance ensemble or when I get a little bit older I would love to be Simba. That would be great.
The critically-acclaimed rock musical “RENT” is running through June 10 at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. Tickets start at $29 and are available at DrPhillipsCenter.org.