I remember how excited I was when it was first announced that Norm Lewis was going to be cast as the Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera,” on Broadway, making him the first Black man to play the role in the Broadway production. And I’m excited again, now that African-American Jordan Donica has been cast in the role of Raoul, making him the first African-American to play the role on Broadway. What’s incredibly impressive about this accomplishment is that Donica just graduated cum laude from Otterbein University with an MFA in musical theater, and this casting is his Broadway debut. As I sat in the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street and watched his performance, I just couldn’t wait to interview this young man. Sitting in his dressing room, he shared so many things about his life and the role. In this Q&A, Donica, an Indianapolis native, shared that he was raised by single mother Kelly Donica, and with her and their family, he gained an early love and appreciation of the theater. To see him on stage, you immediately realize that performing is this young man’s passion and that he has made Raoul his own.
AmNews: How is it to perform in such a well-known and loved musical and have it as your Broadway debut?
JD: The words would be surreal and real at the same time. This is my favorite show, the show inspired me to want to pursue theater as a career. I saw it when I was 9. I saw it with my cousin, and I said to my cousin, I’m going to do that one day. For this to be my role in a Broadway show. I never thought I’d play Raoul. Words can’t express the gratitude I have to be here and I try to show that in my performance. I want you to feel what he feels. He is not just an entitled, privileged person. Having just graduated in May, I feel I’m putting what I just learned to use.
AmNews: How is it to be the first Black Raoul on Broadway?
JD: I think that’s one of the reasons I never saw myself playing Raoul. Raoul comes from all this wealth and power and a military background. When I got the part I was thrilled. But, I never felt that I couldn’t do it. It comes down to your soul and whether you can tell a story. When I was auditioning, it was solely about the work and the performance. I feel very blessed to be the first Black person, it helped me to see myself in a different way. I had three callbacks. I auditioned for the tour of Phantom to be in the ensemble and understudy Raoul, but I didn’t get it. Then he got a call from his agents that they were replacing Raoul on Broadway. I auditioned and got a call three weeks later.
AmNews: How did you prepare for the role?
JD: I have listened to this music from when I was a child, and I had always wanted to play the Phantom, so I hadn’t paid much attention to Raoul. I wanted to make sure that I knew all the material and I met with a couple of voice teachers for a few months. I underestimated how much Raoul sings. I kept practicing the songs. Then I worked on the role so that it would be something that I would want to watch. I also got my allergies in check.
AmNews: What are some of the challenges of this role?
JD: It’s a lot more physical than I realized, with jumping and the steel traps in the stage. They also added in some dancing with masquerade. Every week we have people swinging in and out of the show, so that keeps you on your toes. If you do stay present you’ll find a million and one new things. You have to stay present—physically and mentally. Vocally it’s also more challenging than I thought it would be.
AmNews: You’re so strong and dramatic as you sing “All I Ask of You.” What’s going through your mind as you sing it?
JD: So many things. First, what the circumstance is, as an audience member you can forgot what you just saw when you hear a beautiful song like this. You just saw a man get hung at an Opera performance and that’s insane. I try to balance Raoul’s strength, his nobility and his courage with a real sense of fear, because I feel if you don’t have a real sense of fear, you don’t have true courage, true strength. You have to allow yourself to feel frightened to know what true courage is. Christine is frightened and he is terrified, but he’s trying not to be because he has to be her protector. For the first time in his life, he goes from a boy who likes a girl to a man who loves a woman. And it’s the first time that he tells anyone outside his family that he loves her. It’s a mutual, loving intense thing. I want the audience to feel and see, because that’s real life.
AmNews: When did you start performing?
JD: I lived in Tennessee and Oscar Mayer Weiner kids were the big things. I thought I could do that. My mom took me to see “Fiddler on the Roof” when I was 3 and I was reenacting it the next day. Then we moved to Indiana with my mother’s family. My family would take me to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I asked them, “What if I was in it?” My Aunt took me on an audition, and I got put in the children’s chorus. I was 8 years old. Then a year later at 9, my Mom took me to see “Phantom.” My grandpa was able to see me in my first two productions, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “The Wizard of Oz.” I was a munchkin. He is where the family gets our love of many things. He was an avid fan of musicals. He had the music to “Jesus Christ Superstar” and my Mom had the CD, so I heard it. My family was very supportive of my acting. She and the whole family came opening night to see the show.
AmNews: How important is it to you to be on stage entertaining people?
JD: I wouldn’t use the word entertaining. I think theater should be entertaining. My goal is that just one person sees what I want them to see, who I think Raoul is and can go out in the world and talk about that. It’s important to me to make the audience part of the story, so that they are not just passively watching. With a story like this, there’s so much to be uncovered. Theater is important because it makes people question their values, and it should make them think about things that are greater than themselves. That’s what this show does. That’s what “Hamilton” does. That’s what “The Color Purple” does and “Spring Awakening.”
AmNews: Who do you see Raoul to be?
JD: I see the evolution of my Raoul, as a shell of what society thinks someone should be turning into an actual person. He’s grown up in this privileged world. I’m not trying to deny my looks either. I put myself into this. I’m the only person of color in my family. My mother Jenny is white. My family feels all that matters is the type of person you are, the spirit that you have. I think he’s someone who is aware of the world, but has chosen the easier path, using his family’s money for his own gains. Raoul uses his station to not connect with anyone. He closes himself off to the rest of the world. That’s his outer layer. On the inside he feels unsure of life. When he sees Christine he thinks of being a child and thinks of the innocence and the joy. In the second act, we see him get too sure of himself, his manhood and his abilities. He ends up pushing Christine into the Phantom’s arms.
AmNews: What advice would you give another young Black man who thinks that there are limits to where he can go in this business?
JD: Show up. I thought the same thing my entire life. I went to a high school of 1200. Only four were not white. With that there came hardships. My color and my heritage have never been questioned. Part of the reason that there is a lack of diversity, most of my Black friends go to audition for shows that are mostly for Black people. I don’t see my friends audition for “An American in Paris,” “Phantom.” You have to go to get the opportunity. If you go and they dislike you, you have to keep showing up. I played Pierrepont Finch in “How to Succeed in Business.” People said you got it because you’re Black and you look like Obama. This was about preparedness and preparation. It’s not about if you get that role, it’s if they want you for something. Do your best work, take an audition as a chance to get better and make a good impression. When I got “How to Succeed,” I was the only person there without a script in my hand. So be prepared and show up.