When a teenaged PJ Benjamin was asked to perform in the musical Carousel at the neighboring all-girls high school, the current Yardley resident was fiercely opposed. In Benjamin’s opinion, theater was for “sissies.” But he gave it a chance at the prospect of meeting some girls.
In the 50-plus years since his unwilling stage debut, Benjamin not only achieved that goal by marrying actress Louisa Flaningam, he discovered an innate passion for the arts. To date, Benjamin has appeared in several thousand performances, including 3,500 shows spanning a decade as the Wizard in Wicked, both on Broadway and on tour.
Now, after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Benjamin is thrilled to entertain audiences once again in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s area premiere of the Tony Award-winning Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, on stage through March 13.
Directed by Philadelphia Theatre Company resident artist Jeffrey L. Page, Choir Boy follows the students of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, which, for half a century, has been dedicated to the education of strong, ethical black men. One of these pupils, Pharus Young (Justen Ross), is determined to make his mark by challenging expectations in a world steeped in deep-rooted tradition. Choir Boy features a powerful gospel and R&B score by musician Crystal Monee Hall, who serves as composer and musical director.
Benjamin portrays Mr. Pendleton, a white, retired school teacher who used to walk with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I was involved in the civil rights movement and I was brought out of retirement to teach at this preparatory school to help the young men with their higher learning, getting into better colleges, help them with their essays to apply to the schools. It’s about young black men learning about who they are,” Benjamin said of his character.
In his personal life, Benjamin isn’t too different from Mr. Pendleton and everything that the fictional educator believes in.
“I was with the civil rights in real life. I was in some of those marches,” reflected Benjamin. “I was around that time, so I know what we’ve come from and I can bring that to the role. I know where we were and we’ve got so much further to go, but boy, was it different back then. I don’t want people to forget that.”
As the only white Choir Boy cast member, Benjamin is excited to be the minority.
“It’s nice to see six African American actors up on the stage,” he said. “It’s about young black men learning about their race, hopes and dreams. I’m very proud to be with this show and what it’s saying on that stage. There’s also some beautiful gospel music in this show, the way they sing a capella, no instruments. They just sound so beautiful together.”
For Benjamin, returning to the stage after two years was enjoyably nerve wracking. He compared the experience to riding a bike or a horse – despite some initial butterflies, it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things.
“But it’s good to be nervous. It means I care. I’m enjoying myself. In those two and a half years when I was off, I realized how much I missed it,” said Benjamin. “You realize how important the arts are, the live arts, especially in this time and this era. It’s so wonderful to be back.”
Ultimately, Benjamin hasn’t been in the industry for over five decades to benefit himself. Rather, with every performance, his main goal is to communicate a message to theater-goers and provide an escape. This is his favorite part of the job and what has kept him motivated to keep acting for so long … even after 3,500 appearances as the Wizard.
“I always had a little trick before the show,” Benjamin said. “I had a little place I could look through a peephole and I could see the audience come in, see their hopes and dreams. They were excited to be there and that made me excited.”
His hope for Choir Boy attendees is that they take away an important lesson.
“We have to respect each other. That’s what you’re getting from this play, respect for different walks of life, different people and who they are,” he said. “Let’s all just love each other.”
Tickets for Choir Boy are on sale starting at $35. Philadelphia Theatre Company offers its 10Tix program, supported by PNC Arts Alive, which provides a select number of seats at $10 for every performance. Tickets are available at philatheatreco.org or 215-985-0420. All shows are performed at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. in Philadelphia.
Audience members must present proof of vaccination with a booster (if eligible) and wear a mask while in the venue. The sale of concessions has been paused. Reduced capacity seating is offered, with mezzanine seating at 20 percent. The theater will offer a performance at 25 percent capacity on March 4, at 8 p.m.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com