By Peter Richards
Photographer Matt Monath
Tituss Burgess has been known to provoke thunderous applause.
But when he was growing up he remembers his mother’s annoyance with his amateur performance. “My mom would be like ‘Must you sing so loud?’ I mean she’s very proud of me now, but it wasn’t like ‘Make sure you go practice,’ it was more like, ‘Oh, lord, here you go again!’”
Despite his mother’s protests, Tituss’s practicing paid off. He landed first Broadway role in Good Vibrations in 2005, then went on to star in Broadway’s award-winning iconic musical, Jersey Boys later that year. Since then, he’s performed in The Little Mermaid as the legendary Sebastien the Crab, and in the revival of Guys and Dolls. NBC’s 30 Rock put Tituss on the comedic map. He was perfect for the role of D’Fwan, a member of Tracy Jordan’s wife’s entourage in season 5 of Tina Fey’s hit series. A veteran of the stage, Tituss immediately felt the disparity between the techniques of acting for a live audience 20 feet away versus acting in front of a camera, a few inches from his face. “It was a strange transition, because I’m so used to playing to the back of the house in theater—the gestures are so large and animated, but then with TV you can do it as many times as you want until you get it right.” Tituss adapted to the screen with flying colors, and returned to play D’Fwan in season 6 of the show. We’re so glad he did! In fact, Tina Fey enjoyed Tituss’s energy so much, she and Robert Carlock wrote in a specific character to fit into her new comedy series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt just for him. This hilarious Netflix sitcom focuses on a woman recently rescued from a doomsday cult struggling to reinvent herself in New York City. But along her journey, Kimmy meets Tituss, an equally lost but determined actor working odd jobs to pass the time between the auditions and rejections.
Tituss recognizes the fine line he must walk in comedy, “Humor is such a sensitive space, you’ve got to know what’s funny and what’s not because striking chords with the audience is a huge deal in that space.” During Tituss’s transition from theatre to television, he made sure to stay in touch with his friends on the stage. So much so, that he’s currently collaborating with Rick Ellis, the playwright who crafted Jersey Boys, in both writing and composing a Broadway musical. An actor and a pianist, Tituss understands that the basic philosophy of any performance based platform is the art of communication, “I think communication is all the same whether it’s talking, ordering a burger, or whether it’s delivering a speech—it’s just, you know, having a conversation with someone.”
He’s even performed for the President himself, during the “Broadway for Obama” benefit concert in Easton, Pennsylvania, shortly before President Obama was elected in 2008. As an African-American actor, he empathizes with the President’s struggle to pass legislation in Washington. ”I think we have to realize that it is not for the people in that room who don’t necessarily share our progressive mindset, but rather for those who are ready to examine the state of the country, the state of our culture, and the lack of inclusiveness in these awards reflect a lack of inclusiveness in the country.”
When Tituss does have free time between starring in a hit show and composing a new musical, he’s giving back to the community through The Middle Project, a non-denominational philanthropic organization run by Dr. Jacqui Lewis. Based in the East Village in New York City, The Middle Project brings together youth and adults from a range of different religious backgrounds to collaborate and raise money in order to send them across the county and around the world, if possible, to help heal the human race. Tituss has been involved with the organization for about 8 years now through his own church, The Middle Collegiate Church.
It’s difficult to sum up a man with such an extraordinary gift of comedic timing, musical inclination, and genuine spirit. But music, comedy, and community may be the three words that come to mind when you next see Tituss Burgess.