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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 27, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 22
Motown inspirations for Chester Gregory
Arts & Entertainment
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Motown inspirations for Chester Gregory

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

MOTOWN, THE MUSICAL
PARAMOUNT THEATRE
May 31-June 12


Chester Gregory is currently playing the role he was meant to play. As the new hit musical Motown comes into Seattle, Mr. Gregory plays the founder and father of the Motown sound, Mr. Berry Gordy. Being one of his three main influences, Chester Gregory gets to honor and pay homage to this legendary man.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

Chester Gregory: I grew up in Gary, Indiana and so a major influence for me was, of course, Michael Jackson. Then there is also, in addition, other performers such as Gregory Hines, Ben Vereen, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Andrews-Katz: Jackie Wilson is a repeating figure in your life. What is it about this man that has influenced your career?

Gregory: There has always been a trifecta in my life. Jackie Wilson inspired Berry Gordy and Berry Gordy inspired Michael Jackson. Jackson got a lot of his influence for style, charisma and dance moves from Wilson. Then going back further, it was Jackie Wilson that gave Berry Gordy his start when he let Gordy write 'Reet Petite' for him. It became a hit, and it was from Wilson's support that Gordy recognized his self worth. That gave Gordy the courage to start his own label. When I was growing up and studying Michael Jackson, I went back and found Jackie Wilson. I became a huge fan and now am close to his family, his son, and grandchildren. It's been a pivotal point in my career to celebrate Jackie Wilson, the man and artist.

Andrews-Katz: You originated the role of 'Donkey' in Shrek while it was on its pre-Broadway Seattle run. Why didn't you stay with the show through its Broadway opening?

Gregory: I'm not sure to be honest. We all have a point where we& I try to focus on the journey; what I learned, from doing Shrek in Seattle. I love Seattle, that part of the country is beautiful and the city has wonderful food. I think what was needed [for me from Shrek] was fulfilled; it completed its purpose in my life and prepared me for the next thing, which was doing Dream Girls. I was grateful to have the opportunity working in Shrek with Brian D'Arcy James, Sutton Foster, and Kecia-Lewis Evans.

Andrews-Katz: Your connection with Motown began early in your career. What was it like to sing for Michael Jackson, the King of Pop?

Gregory: It was a dream come true! It was the summer of 2003 and I had just concluded the run of The Jackie Wilson Story, at the Apollo Theatre in New York. After that I auditioned for Hairspray and I got the part of 'Seaweed.' The same week I performed for Michael Jackson, so I was on Cloud 9! They asked if I would be part of a Special Performance for Michael. Most of the performers did Michael Jackson songs, but I did a Jackie Wilson song. I introduced it by saying that I knew how much Jackie Wilson influenced Michael, and he gave me a standing ovation when I finished. I was determined to meet him and somehow got past all the security, both at the theatre and Michael's personal security. As he was rushed by, I screamed out 'Jackie Wilson,' and that got his attention. I was ushered through and got to shake his hand and thanked him for inspiring me. It was all very surreal.

Andrews-Katz: How did you choose the specific music for your solo CD In Search of High Love?

Gregory: I wanted to have a project that encompassed the whole idea of Love. It's the story of searching for love, trying to find that person that is right for you, then ultimately ending up finding that person in yourself and learning how to love yourself, so you can align with finding that perfect someone else. It's a journey of finding self-love. I worked with some of my favorite producers on this: P.J. Martin, After One& and it includes heavy influences from my friend, J. Dilla. It's a project dear to my heart. I co-wrote about 70% of the material.

Andrews-Katz: Do people recognize you from your appearance on the Video Game 'Grand Theft Auto - Liberty City'?

Gregory: You can't see me, I only do a Voice Over, but so far there hasn't been any recognition of my voice. I was a character screaming things like, 'Die Mother Fucker!', it was a very interesting session. They kept on telling me to be 'more mean.' I, literally, yelled for about 60 minutes one day. I would love to do more Voice Overs. I've done a few Peter H. Reynolds books, Ish, and a few others. I love working with them.

Andrews-Katz: How did the audition for the role of Motown's Berry Gordy come about?

Gregory: Actually, it's the anniversary (this month) of my meeting Berry Gordy for the first time. When Motown opened in L.A., I knew people in the show. I got random calls on opening night from my friends Allison Semmes [who portrayed Diana Ross] and Jarran Muse [Marvin Gaye]. One of them got me a ticket to the opening night performance and one got me a ticket to the opening night cast party. I remember posting that I hoped to meet Berry Gordy. I got to meet Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. I had no idea at that time that I'd be in the show. That fall, I got a call saying they wanted to see me for the show. I sent in four or five audition tapes and eventually they brought me into the rehearsal studio in L.A. I walked in and got to meet Berry Gordy. By then the jitters were gone (since I had met him before) and I focused on the work. He gave me some pointers and I made those adjustments. I got the call a week later that I got the job. I'm excited because Berry Gordy will be at one of the Seattle performances, and this will be the first time he's seen me perform from the audience.

Andrews-Katz: Is it easier or more difficult to play a real-life person than a fictional one?

Gregory: What I enjoy as an actor, whether it's a fictional character or not, is to find the truth. That's my job to find the truth of the character, and live in that truth. When portraying a real life icon that's passed on, like Jackie Wilson, I live on the research, and study the footage, reading all types of articles. When it comes time to do it, I throw all that away and trust what I've learned will be enough. I don't have things preplanned, so I get to the scene and see how it evolves. I like to think about what Meryl Streep once said: 'Acting is not about being someone different. It's about finding the similarities in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.'

Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role - regardless of any limitations - what would it be and why?

Gregory: I would love to be 'The Wiz' in The Wiz. That has always been one of my dream roles to play. Andre de Shields [originator of the role on Broadway] is a mentor of mine, and I remember seeing him perform later on as The Wiz. I got a chance to see Stephanie Mills [original Dorothy] and Andre de Shields. 'The Wiz' is such a fun character to play with depth and range. He's the boss. The music is great music, and I would love to play that role at some point.



Chester Gregory has appeared Off-Broadway in The Jackie Wilson Story. On Broadway, he created the roles of 'Berry Gordy' (Motown, the Musical), 'Eddie Souther' (Sister Act, the Musical), 'Dupree' (Cry-Baby), and 'Terk' (Disney's Tarzan), as well as taking over the role of 'Seaweed' in Hairspray. His solo album In Search of High Love was released in 2008.

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