Broadway's Jelani Alladin works to break barriers in theater

The seeds of Jelani Alladin’s career in the arts were sown while a student at New Canaan High School, whose very first role was starring as the Cat in the Hat in “Seussical the Musical” as a sophomore. The Brooklyn born-thespian attended high school here through the A Better Chance (ABC) program.

“The theater program there was where I began my exploration into the arts and I am incredibly grateful for all the lessons I learned there. Dee Alexander [New Canaan High School Theatre Coordinator Deirdre Alexander] was so amazing and instrumental in pushing me to become the best artist I could at that time,” he said. “I did almost every show that I could there and I learned so much from the different types of roles I played, whether I was in the ensemble or front and center.”

Alladin recalls Alexander telling him she saw some natural talent in him, which drove him to work harder. “When I was given the chance to be the star of my first show, I did not take that lightly. I felt an incredible responsibility to learn as much as I can as quickly as I could,” he said. Unlike many of his fellow students who could afford to take private voice and acting lessons, as an ABC student, he would be cooking his meals in the ABC House kitchen and reading the script and singing his songs over and over every night.

He has long been driven and determined to improve as a singer, actor and dancer. His hard work is paying off. After graduating New Canaan High School in 2010 and New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, he made his Broadway debut as Kristoff in “Frozen” in 2018, a life-changing role.

“It was an incredible honor for me because never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that’s how I would have made my Broadway debut,” he said. “Disney Theatricals took a chance on me because I was the best person for the part. What they didn’t know was they were also hiring an activist to play the part.”

Activism is a thread that has long run through Alladin’s life. As one of a handful of African-American students at New Canaan High School, he personally experienced racism, both covert and outright. He is quick to say however, that for every one act of racism he experienced, there were a hundred good experiences he had there.

Given that the phone interview for this article took place amid the protests that were being held over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, the conversation naturally strayed from the arts to race. The two topics are perhaps inextricably linked.

Artists use their voice to change hearts and minds on stage. Both on and off stage, Alladin has been working towards racial inclusivity and equality. “One of the things I fought for in my time in ‘Frozen’ was that every Kristoff after me to be African-American because they needed to create a revolving door for African-Americans,” he said.

Creating a revolving door and changing the standard for how a role is seen — an African-American actor as Kristoff or as Nathan in “Guys and Dolls,” for example — is how it starts. “That’s how you do it, that’s how you change things. You create revolving doors,” he said.

After performing in “Frozen” for a year, he was going to step away from Broadway and turned his sights to film and television. During that time though, he was cast in the Public Theater’s residency of “Hercules” in Central Park last summer. His turn as an African American playing the titular hero can be described as revolutionary at the time. “I still think it is. Sadly, it actually has more resonance now than it did last summer,” he said.

Due to Broadway’s shutdown for COVID-19 and the growing likelihood that theaters may not reopen until 2021, the fate of “Hercules” is unknown. It likely was destined to move off-Broadway or onto the Great White Way. In the meantime, Alladin has been writing a lot and has four original pieces he has written. He also landed a recurring role in TV’s “The Walking Dead: World Beyond,” which was supposed to debut in April but due to the pandemic, will instead air this fall. Founding his own production company for projects important to him, he is creating art that reflects the need for an African-American man to be front and center. He wants to tell millennial stories, not the August Wilson stories of a man dying at the end of every piece. “I believe that we can change the narrative. With the marching and the protesting and the demand for human rights happening right now, we will then be able to make art that can reflect that,” he said. “At the end of the tale, the black man does survive and is able to stand at the top and in the light. That is what my production company is about.”

Alladin cites Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic song from “South Pacific,” “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” which explores racism. He said the path to end racism begins with education. “We have to unlearn and then learn again. We have been taught on both sides that white privilege gets us places and on the black side that white privilege keeps us from achieving,” he said. “We have to unlearn and relearn that narrative that white privilege does not give you the right to trample over others and that white privilege does not block me from achieving my dreams and goals.”