Theater Interview: ETHAN JOSEPH (Now appearing at the Metropolitan Opera in “Fire Shut up in My Bones”)

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by Gregory Fletcher on April 22, 2024

in Interviews,Theater-New York


In my first interview with Ethan Joseph a year ago, I wondered how a 12-year old boy would be able to top performing at the Met in Terence Blanchard’s Champion. On one of the biggest stages in New York and with the largest pit orchestra, onstage chorus, and production budgets, as well as all the worldwide talent of artists at the top of their crafthow would anyone be able to top this experience? Well, Ethan did just that. He not only performed the role of Little Michael in the national tour of MJ The Musical, ending his 6-month contract at the prestigious Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, but then he returned to New York for the Met’s production of Fire Shut up in My Bones (see Stage and Cinema’s review), playing the protagonist’s younger self, Char’es-Baby. After a recent performance, I was thrilled to do a follow-up interview with Ethan.

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as Little Marlon, Ethan Joseph as Little Michael
in MJ The Musical (photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade)

GREGORY FLETCHER: Ethan, I’m sure the Met was so impressed and taken with you in their last season, it wasn’t hard to picture you in this role. Did you know last year that you’d be cast? Or how hard was it getting the role?

ETHAN JOSEPH: When I finished with Champion, I told my mom that I wanted to be in Fire Shut up in My Bones, but since I had committed to being in the national tour of MJ, I didn’t know if I’d be available. Luckily, the role wasn’t cast until January when I knew when my contract with MJ was ending. The casting director Spencer [Gualdoni] sent me the audition material—he’s the same person who cast me as Little Emile in Champion—and I was so happy to get to audition. I had listened to the CD of the original production and heard all about the role from Walter who played it in 2021.

Ethan Joseph in Champion Met Opera Encore Screening (The Met)

FLETCHER: What luck! How’d you cross paths with him?

ETHAN: Easy. He was playing young Marlon in MJ. And previously, he played Little Michael. He’s a few years older. I think, he’s 15. Walter Russell III.

FLETCHER: You could follow in his footsteps, playing all the roles he outgrows. I wonder if Marlon Jackson is next for you. No, I’m sure, you’ve got your own path. But how nice you were able to get some insight into the role beforehand, which probably made you feel very confident for the audition, yes?

ETHAN: No, I was so nervous because I knew if I got it, it would be really big for me—the biggest part I’d ever had. And I wanted it so bad. I missed the Met; I really wanted to come back here. I was so happy when I learned I got the role.

Backstage at The Met (photo Ava Joseph)

FLETCHER: Since this was a revival of the 2021 production, how actively involved were the creators at rehearsal? [The composer, Terrence Blanchard; the book by Charles M. Blow; the libretto by Kasi Lemmons]

ETHAN: They were very involved and really helpful. I could see that they knew what they wanted with the show, so it really helped that whenever I did something I was unsure about, they’d help me work through it. It was great knowing their vision for the show. They made me really comfortable with the role without any pressure or stress.

FLETCHER: How long was the rehearsal process?

ETHAN: I would say a little less than a month.

FLETCHER: How much time onstage before your first audience?

ETHAN: Two or three weeks, here or there.

Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby and Ryan Speedo Green as Charles
(photo by Marty Sohl)

FLETCHER: You played opposite Ryan Speedo Green for the second time, playing his younger self in the role of Charles. [In Champion, Mr. Green played Young Emile to Ethan’s Little Emile.] Having worked with him before, did it make it easier jumping into this role?

ETHAN: Yeah, it’s crazy that this is my second time, you know, being the younger version of him. He’s such a great, famous opera singer, when I see him, I wonder if he’s my older self.

Brittany Renee as Loneliness, Ethan Joseph, Ryan Speedo Green
(photo by Marty Sohl)

FLETCHER: From your lips to God’s ears; yes, you should be so lucky to turn into Speedo. His voice, his presence—he’s powerful to say the least. I love how you two often duplicated the same gestures and moments to indicate that you were the same character. You could literally see where your character was heading. Did that make it easier building the role?

ETHAN: I kept considering what this character experienced. What did he want? What did he think he deserved? How did his mom treat him? How did his family treat him? Stuff like that. Hes sexually abused. His mom didn’t really care for him that much. His brothers bullied him, and everyone treated him like a little baby. But, you know, deep down he wants to be a big boy. He wants people to see him as a big boy. I want the audience to see that.

Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby, Latonia Moore as Billie, Brittany Renee as Destiny,
and Ryan Speedo Green as Charles (photo by Marty Sohl)

FLETCHER: You also got to play opposite the wonderful Latonia Moore, who plays your mother, Billie. In last year’s Champion, she played your mom, Emelda Griffith. A second reunion—did that make it easier to jump into a mother/son relationship?

ETHAN: Whenever I see Latonia, I see my mom.

Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby, Latonia Moore as Billie,
Brittany Renee as Destiny, and Ryan Speedo Green (photo by Marty Sohl)

FLETCHER: And yet the two moms were very different. Neither of whom were ideal.

ETHAN: Yeah, I think I’d prefer this one because it feels like she cares a little more than the other. It was really easy working with her. I watch her and Speedo and try learning as much as I can in case one day I want to be an opera singer. I try not to get on their nerves but just enjoy every moment I can.

FLETCHER: How long did you have the music before rehearsals?

ETHAN: I think one week. But I also had the CD before that and the video.

FLETCHER: So, you were ready and prepared by the first rehearsal?

ETHAN: I think it’s expected that you learn it on your own and pretty much know it by day one. Whatever I didn’t know well enough, Mr. Evan [Evan Rogister, conductor] would help me. The directors too [James Robinson and Camille A. Brown].

FLETCHER: And much of the music isn‘t always melodic. And with very subtle cues to jump in. Not easy.

ETHAN: Yeah, it was really hard because I was pretty much in the whole first act. I had more stage time than ever before, so I knew I’d be challenged and wanted to do a great job.

Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby with Cast (photo by Marty Sohl)

FLETCHER: And luckily, acts two and three were much lighter because by then your character had grown older. But I loved how you reappeared in act two in one of Camille A. Brown’s many dance pieces for a male ensemble. I gasped when you were carried onstage, looking like you were floating above their heads.

ETHAN: I had to be held by five men, different from the video I studied. Camille wanted me rejecting them and moving my arms and legs as if despising them.

FLETCHER: She recreated it with you?

ETHAN: Yes, Camille and the dance captain.

FLETCHER: Who coached you with the acting of the role?

ETHAN: You know, since we didn’t wear mics. I had to project the lines out to the audience. So whenever I couldn’t be heard, the directors would let me know.

FLETCHER: And at the end of act one, when the opera gets quite dark and your character is sexually abused by your cousin, I was glad to see that the staging turned very stylized. The moment your cousin reaches to touch your hair, you stood up and faced forward without showing anything graphic. A large projection [by George Emetaz] of a closeup of your face in anguish appeared above you—a stunning, heartbreaking moment. Who helped you prepare for that emotional struggle that ends act one?

ETHAN: The directors made sure we were comfortable, and so did the intimacy director [Doug Scholz-Carlson]. He made sure we all felt comfortable in the roles and that we didn’t feel weirded out.

FLETCHER: I’m sure the book writer Charles M. Blow was very pleased with your performance.

ETHAN: When I first met Mr. Charles, I was a little scared and nervous because I didn’t know if he like my performance or not. But when I saw the smile on his face, he said, “An amazing job,” and we took a photo together. It’ll be a really great memory every time I think about it.

FLETCHER: Having done the Broadway production of Tina: the Tina Turner Musical [as Little Craig] and the national tour of MJ [as Little Michael], and two productions at the Met, [as Little Emile and Char’es-Baby], I just have to ask, are you looking forward to playing characters that aren’t considered little?

ETHAN: Not that much because my mom told me to enjoy it while it lasts. You can’t play kid roles forever,” she says.

In front of Lincoln Center (photo by Ava Joseph)

FLETCHER: You’ve had so much big success for a 13-year-old. Are you aware of how much money you’ve made?

ETHAN: You know, my parents don’t really tell me how much money I make, but I’m kind of curious. The only money I know about is my retirement pension, which so far is

FLETCHER: No, no, don’t tell me. You should keep those specifics to yourself. I was just curious if you were aware of how financially successful you’ve been.

ETHAN: Oh yeah, I guess I’m a little aware. I just don’t make a big deal about it. If I was in someone else’s shoes, and I saw myself, I would be like, Yeah, he’s gotta be rich.

FLETCHER: Do you consider yourself rich?

ETHAN: I guess so.

FLETCHER: Have you thought about how you hope to spend your money someday?

ETHAN: I get to buy something big after each project I work on. For MJ, I bought a pair of designer shoes. My dad makes sure I invest any money I make.

Opening night of MJ at the Pantages Hollywood
(photo Ava Joseph)

FLETCHER: And well-deserved, I’m sure, for spending six months on the road. Did you like travelling and performing week after week? Tell me some of the highlights from MJ and your favorite cities.

ETHAN: I only had to perform in every other show, but the shows were amazing. I loved the cast, and playing Little Michael was a dream job. In LA, I got to meet Verdine White from Earth, Wind and Fire, and Prince Jackson. I brought my Funko Pop that I got from the Funko Pop store and asked him to sign it. He said he loved the show and that he didn’t even have one of those Funko Pops. [A Michael Jackson collectible.] Travelling can be really exhausting because of all the suitcases you have to bring. I loved Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans the most.

FLETCHER: Getting back to Fire Shut up in My Bones, there are two repeating phrases in the opera that are really quite beautiful. Let me read each one, and then you tell me what it means to you. Sometimes, you gotta just leave it on the road.

ETHAN: That means to just let it go, just to forget it. It’s not important anymore. It causes a lot of pain. We don’t need to carry it anymore. And you know it probably wasn’t worth keeping.

FLETCHER: The second one: I bend. I don’t break. I sway.

ETHAN: That means I am strong. It’s a reminder and a promise that I’m strong. My roots are deep. Thinking about his roots, where he came from, thinking about all his experiences that make him stronger, how God made him so. That’s how I like to think about it.

Ethan Joseph as Little Emile in Champion (The Met)

FLETCHER: How nice to carry those with you for the rest of your life. You know, from what I see, you’re just such an innocent, sweet, and incredibly nice boy. And yet at the Met, you’ve been cast to play two different tortured souls. But you play them with such heart and skill, I’d never know you hadn’t walked in their shoes. How has it been for you playing these two roles?

ETHAN: They both share a familiar experience of trauma because both of their moms didn’t really care for them. Chares-Baby is still cared for by his uncle but abused by his cousin Chester. And Little Emile [in Champion] is abused by his cousin Blanche. Sometimes when I have an aria, I’m like wow. And as soon as I go offstage, I wanna do it again. It’s empowering.

Krysty Swann as Cousin Blanche, Ethan Joseph as Little Emile,
and Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile in Champion (The Met)

FLETCHER: So, it’s almost invigorating to play these troubled souls? Clearly, you are very grounded, stable, and possess a healthy spirit. You must have amazing parents and a very loving family with a big support system around you.

ETHAN: My mom, she’s the reason I’m able to do this stuff, and I’m thankful for thatthankful for her. You know, I feel like she’s gonna make the difference between my life and the roles I play because she cares for me. All of my family cares for me. So yeah, I’m thankful for my mom, my dad, and my family.

FLETCHER: [After beckoning for Ethan’s mom, Ava Joseph, to join us] Do you have final say over which roles he accepts?

MS. JOSEPH: We support him 1000% with whatever role he wants to do. But we talk to him about the roles. Especially the emotional parts of the roles, which you know, can be very taxing. But I think that’s why he’s so good at it, because its so different from his life. He can tap into the pain of what these other characters go through. You know, Little Michael getting beat by his dad, Little Emile in Champion forced to hold cinder blocks over his head, and the sexual abuse by his cousin Chester as Chares-Baby. All these traumas that Ethan, thank God, has not experienced. But by pulling on the love and support from his family, he can use that as his strength to actually help tell the stories of these other characters.

FLETCHER: At a time when so many books are being banned because of uncomfortable situations being portrayed, has this been an issue for you as a parent? How are you brave enough to embrace these stories and allow your son to portray such characters?

MS. JOSEPH: I think any time you ban a book or a character, I think you’re silencing someone’s story, someone’s life, a part of what makes them who they are. They have the right to tell their story in publication, onstage, on film. No matter the pain or agony that a character has gone through, it’s never right to silence them. If you don’t want to read it or see it, that’s your choice. This is America; we all have a choice. But to ban the book because you don’t like the content, it’s wrong. Other people will be able to relate to it and/or have similar lives. Our lives are like mountains. We have the mountain tops and we have the valleys. The beauty is in the total mountain, both the ups and downs, the shared experiences that other people have gone through. I think it’s dangerous when we start banning books and other people’s stories because we don’t agree with the content. Parents should be able to make the decision for themselves. As I told Ethan when he was preparing for this role, this is not your story; this is someone else’s story, and therefore it’s important to tell that story with honesty as an actor.

FLETCHER: I can totally see why Ethan is so strong and stable. And fingers crossed that the Met will be calling in the future with a happier role in mind. Perhaps for Amahl and the Night Visitors? Any other suggestions for the Met?

ETHAN: I’m happy to audition for any child role they have. If not, I’ll just wait for the next Terence Blanchard opera. Hopefully!

FLETCHER: I’m sure both the Met and Mr. Blanchard will be delighted to have you.

Follow Ethan Joseph on Instagram.

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