For Phillip Boykin, acting is not just a job. It’s a high calling.
“As an entertainer, I was given these gifts to uplift people and make their life a little better — even if it’s only for 90 minutes in a musical,” Boykin said. “I want to take their mind off their troubles for a little while and inspire them to do the same for someone else.”
Boykin’s talents, nurtured in Greenville, took him to starring roles on Broadway (“Porgy and Bess”) and in Hollywood (“Top Five,” with fellow South Carolinian Chris Rock).
Now, Boykin is returning home in the national tour of the critically acclaimed “Once on This Island,” running Nov. 5-10 at the Peace Center.
Winner of the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, “Once on This Island” is a sweeping tale of Ti Moune, a fearless peasant girl in search of her place in the world and ready to risk everything for love. She sets out on a journey to reunite with the man who has captured her heart.
Boykin stars as Tonton Julian, who finds the orphan Ti Moune and raises her with Mama Euralie. Boykin created the role of Tonton Julian in the 2017 Broadway revival of this 1990 musical.
“I immediately connected with the story of an orphan who finds a home,” Boykin said, speaking in his resonant bass-baritone by phone during a tour stop in Nashville. “I myself was adopted, and the young woman who played my adopted daughter on Broadway was also adopted.”
The music score, with its vibrant Caribbean rhythms, was created by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the Tony Award-winning songwriters of “Anastasia” and “Ragtime.”
“I love seeing how the audience is touched and moved by the story and the music,” Boykin said. “We’ve been so well received. There’s been a standing ovation after every performance. I think that means they’re liking it.”
The South Carolina Theatre Association will welcome Boykin back to Greenville by inducting him into the South Carolina Theatre Hall of Fame after Tuesday’s opening performance.
Growing up in Greenville
One of 10 children, Boykin grew up in Greenville and was mentored by beloved figures in the Greenville arts and education community who encouraged the young man with the big voice to reach for his dreams, Boykin said. He sang gospel music in his youth, later adding songs from Broadway and then arias from opera.
He began his vocal and theater training at the Phillis Wheatley Repertory Theatre for Youth, created and directed by his adoptive father, the late Dwight W. Woods.
Marjorie Bennett, then the choral director at Hollis Middle School and Greenville High School, put him in a musical version of “A Christmas Carol.”
“She asked me as a middle school student to sing a role in the high school play,” Boykin said, “and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ I sang the most beautiful song, ‘What Does Christmas Mean to You?’”
Over the phone, Boykin then crooned a few lines, his voice filled with emotion: “What does Christmas mean to you? Is its message ever new…?”
Other mentors included Michael Rice of the Fine Arts Center and Virginia Uldrick of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
“All of them were very supportive and influential,” Boykin said.
He would return to the Governor’s School years later for a short stint teaching voice lessons and acting classes.
‘Island’ on tour
Boykin usually stays close to Broadway — he lives in West Orange, New Jersey, a short train ride from Manhattan — but the opportunity to tour the country was irresistible.
“I want to see my friends, family and fans all over the U.S.,” he said. “That’s the real motivation for the tour. I’m extremely excited to bring this show to Greenville.”
Several of his brothers and sisters who still live in Greenville will get to see Boykin in a musical for the first time.
“None of them could come to New York to see me on Broadway,” Boykin said. “Part of the reason I’m extremely excited is that I’m going to invite all of them to see me perform in Greenville.”
The “Once on This Island” cast of 22 had only two weeks to rehearse in New York, with an added week of tech rehearsals in Paducah, Kentucky.
“We put this together at lightning speed, but you wouldn’t be able to tell,” he said.
On Broadway, the 90-minute musical was performed in the round. The critics raved about the Broadway revival, calling it “ravishing” (New York Times), “captivating” (Hollywood Reporter) and “stunning” (“AM New York”).
The touring production was restaged for proscenium stages across the country.
“It was difficult for me to adjust from doing it in the round, but it has worked beautifully,” Boykin said. “It still has that magic. We’ve got sand all over the stage and there’s a river running through it. It’s just amazing, spectacular to see.”
Though he’s appeared on TV and in movies, Boykin still loves musical theater the most.
“I love the live audience,” Boykin said. “Unlike in the movies, we don’t get to do a second or third or hundredth take of a scene, so it has to be right at that moment.”
And what’s on Boykin’s bucket list?
“One day I’m going to tour the world with an orchestra and other singers,” Boykin said. “Even at my age, I’m still dreaming.”
Paul Hyde, a longtime Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Greenville Journal. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.
If you go
- What: “Once On This Island,” by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
- When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday (Nov. 5-7); 8 p.m. Friday (Nov. 8); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 9); and 1 and 6:30 p.m. (Nov. 10)
- Where: Peace Center
- Tickets: $35-$95
- Info: 864-467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org