How did you start dancing?
I’ve been dancing my whole life. I had two left feet honestly [laughs], so I didn’t start officially dancing until later. I came to New York when I was 14 and saw several Broadway shows while I was studying with Open Jar Institute during the summer. The first Broadway show I saw was Memphis, and it ended up being my first national tour, so that was crazy and awesome at the same time.
But when you see these shows you realize that you have to be an amazing singer, dancer, and actor all at the same time. So I started taking more classes. I went to an arts high school, however when I was 17 I really started to study technical dance. That was about 4 years ago.
What’s it like to start dancing a little later than most people?
I’ve been involved in musical theatre basically my whole life, so I knew the basics. It was still very challenging. I had to always come to class mentally prepared, but sometimes I wasn’t able to focus completely because you have girls who had been dancing since they were two years old. In ballet, I didn’t know the language, so it was a little intimidating. But I did have a lot of phenomenal teachers, support, and drive for myself.
Were you set on becoming a performer?
Yeah. My mother and father sang. They had a cute little singing group and would sing at weddings. They’re now in the education and therapy fields. My oldest brother is a visual artist, singer, and a poet. My middle brother is a musician, singer, rapper, producer. They both write songs and are a part of the group Stank Sauce—they recently went to Abu Dhabi to perform. My family has been always somewhat artistically inclined, that’s just how it was. We were always doing our own thing. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I liked to dance, to sing, and to act, but I didn’t know how to make all these things come together. It happened gradually. But I always knew I wanted to perform.
What did you do after high school?
I didn’t get into any of the musical theatre universities or colleges I wanted to get into. As a younger performer, to be honest, I had a little ego problem. I thought I was better than what I was. And the universe was like, "Nope, we’re going to teach you." I took a year off and was a bridal stylist in the meantime. I do love fashion, it’s a great form of self-expression. I am all about having artistic freedom and expression—that’s why I love to perform. Even within fashion, I found my love.
After about a year of doing that, I auditioned for Joffrey Ballet School NYC. They came to Jacksonville, FL, where I am from. I got in and got a scholarship, which I had to have in order to go to college. I got a full scholarship for the summer program. I didn’t have one for the year-round program. But it didn’t matter. I was going to get to New York, and I wasn’t going to leave. I ended up getting a full scholarship for the year round program—housing and tuition. It was pretty crazy.
I was studying with Garth Fagan that summer, who choreographed The Lion King. His dance company is in Rochester, and it was my second summer up there and one of the first times I truly connected myself with movement. I took the bus from Rochester to Manhattan on my 19th birthday with $20 and a dream. I’ll never forget that moment. It’s funny because it was like a real-life movie. That’s actually how I got here.
How did you find out about Joffrey?
I was always on backstage and Playbill. I was always looking for opportunities to continue. Unfortunately, in Florida, there aren’t many avenues to work in the arts as there are in New York. But I was always looking for something to do.
It’s great that they hold auditions all around the country.
Yeah. They tour around the country. I actually didn’t end up staying there for four years—I was at Joffrey for about a year. Spending four years would have led to a certificate. After leaving Joffrey, I began working at theme parks and booked Memphis soon after. I’m grateful that everything worked out.
What was it like to move to the city?
Initially I was staying with a friend who I met during my summers at Garth Fagan Dance. She lived at 37th and 10th. I could see Times Square from there—I was right next to the Baryshnikov Center and other things I didn’t know as a little black boy from Florida. Just to be even live in the middle of all of that—I don’t take things like that lightly. I think there’s a purpose for everything. I’ve had a lot of support and love since the very first moment of coming to this place. You can’t make these experiences up. Things happen.
As a performer, the way that I make my livelihood is from what I look like and who wants to work with that look. I had to realize that there is one me and one you. No one is going to be able to do something like you can, and no one is going to be able to do something like I can, which means that not everything is right for me and not everything is going to be perfect. I was very fortunate to learn that when I first got here. I was going to auditions—but I wasn’t ready for Broadway. I wasn’t going to all of my classes sometimes and wasn’t prioritizing my time well.
A lot of people spend so much time at school, and then they come out to New York and wish that they had known certain things before coming to the city. But you really have to just experience for yourself, especially in this field.
Why did you leave Joffrey?
You know how your parents tell you to not get caught up with a boy or girl and focus on school? I wasn’t necessarily getting caught up, but I was younger and wasn’t prioritizing my time. I didn’t take full advantage of all the opportunities that were given to me, and Joffrey called me out on it. I was living and training in their facilities, and it got to a point where they said I couldn’t do it anymore. And I had to deal with that. Thankfully I met and worked with a lot of amazing artists who became friends over the year, and I have always had a pretty supportive family. I had to deal with the consequences of my choices. That was one of the most impactful lessons I learned from being here. It was a grand lesson I had to learn. It was a big deal, but I am also glad that the stakes weren’t too high.
Honestly, everything worked out because I wanted to work, and I did work. But I will say that I think all students should take advantage of school and outside sources. I heard the other day that someone taught only at school is someone not taught at all. As dancers, I think we get burned out a little bit. I let people know that I am not just a dancer—I sang before I danced. You get pushed into this box, and since I danced at Joffrey Ballet School, people assume that I am just a ballet boy. I do have ballet in my toolbox, but that’s only one of the things that I can do.
What are you up to now?
I just closed The Wiz in Florida. It was a beautiful time. Right now I am focusing on creating opportunities to make a living besides waiting on someone else to give me the OK. Things are in the works for me, but I don’t want to sit and wait for things to happen. I just want to go, go, go. As a queer artist of color, I think there are a lot of our stories that are not shared properly to the majority of audiences. I am just focusing on channeling my work in that general direction of creative energy and creating proper and multifaceted representation for all people of color. I’ve been doing a lot of work with my friends on various forms of visual narratives about modern day queer black men, exploring Afrofuturism as well. There are so many marginalized groups that don’t get seen, and I believe that there are more things that bring us together than separate us. I’m also in the process of writing and recording original works.
[Note: J'royce will be playing the role of Tyrone Jackson in the upcoming national tour of Fame!]
What are your aspirations?
I want to be a voice to boys and girls who don’t think that they’re enough, who go to these auditions and feel they have to alter their bodies or spirits. It’s hard for me to put on weight, and right now on Broadway, all those men are built. I had a really hard time with that, not to mention social norms. I was a vegetarian from 13-18, and last year I started eating a lot to gain more muscle mass. I was drinking so many protein shakes and overdoing meat—I did like the way that I looked, but it wasn’t really for me. And then you have to realize that there may not be an opportunity for you right now, but 1) it’s coming and 2) you can create it. One thing I am so grateful for is the push for more diversity on Broadway. Different types of people, bodies, spirits. I want to continue to promote authenticity.
Toughest time you’ve gone through?
In general, performers always have been deemed the lowest of the low as far as getting paid for your art. Rachelle Rak always says it’s not all glamorous. People want to have us on a pedestal but when it comes to a livelihood—I didn’t go to school to be a doctor or a lawyer. I went to school to perform. To tell stories. When it’s not reciprocated, it can taint something so sacred.
When I was training to be a bartender at Something Rotten!, everyday I was hearing Michael James Scott belt and all these beautiful people singing while I was pouring drinks. That can really negatively alter your mental state if you’re not strong enough. You are serving people while other people are doing what you want to do. I couldn’t handle it. That was probably the toughest time.
I will say that to get out of any tough moments, I’ve had a great support system and I’ve been always able to remember that this is a process. Everyone has gone through it. Some people graduate immediately and get on Broadway, but those shows are over. Even Tony winners have to figure out what they’re going to do because any performing job isn’t really constant work. I’ve been fortunate enough to find ways to make a living, but I am still searching.
Number one advice?
We need to be nice to each other. Because when there’s competition, our insecurities can show. We may not be as supportive for someone else. I was at a call the other day, and three of us were the same type. At the audition, we opened up and asked each other how we felt about it. If I don’t get it, someone I like will get it. As Marisha Wallace says, “If God is knocking on your friend’s door, at least they’re in the neighborhood.”
Is there anything you want to share with the world?
I think the main thing is to continue being who you are. I had a hard time with that. People always say that I am unapologetic with my energy, which I guess is true. But I’ve been dealing with lots of internal struggles simply because sometimes you get put into a box. If you’re not strong within yourself, you can become someone else and years later and not understand what happened or how you go where you are. Everyone will not understand you and that’s absolutely okay. You really don’t want them in your empire anyway. Trust in your instincts, believe in your intuition. Know that you’re on the right track and there’s only one of you. There may be a lot of people who look like you, sound like you, dance like you, but there’s only one person that can bring the energy that you have. Once you hone that, it becomes easier.