Twenty years ago, Tony-nominated actor Derrick Baskin couldn’t imagine his biggest dream coming true.
Baskin, 43, portrays Otis Williams, the lead singer of famed Motown quintet The Temptations, in the hit Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.” On Sunday, Baskin will be vying for the Tony Award for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a musical. It is his first lead role on Broadway, and he is the only black performer nominated in his category. The musical, which received 12 nominations, features some of the top singles by the Motown group, including “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination” and “I Can’t Get Next to You,” one of Baskin’s personal faves to perform in the show.
But in 1998, before he moved to New York City, starring on Broadway seemed like a far-fetched dream. He was living with his grandfather in St. Louis, applying to medical school after graduating from Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia, with a bachelor’s degree in biology. The seeds that were planted at Hampton — affirming messages and images of the power of black excellence — ultimately inspired him to strive for greatness, no matter what obstacles stood in his way.
“I think that this Broadway musical is hopefully an inspiration to young black male artists. I love that this show shows five strong black male leads,” he said. “To have five of us in ‘Ain’t Too Proud,’ it is an important time in our culture to see that.”
Perhaps that’s what makes Baskin the perfect performer to portray the tenacious leader of one of the greatest singing groups of all time. In an interview with HuffPost, Baskin talks about what he learned from Williams, the power of seeing five leading black men on stage in Broadway and the message he hopes audiences take away from the show.
How did it feel when you found out that you had been nominated?
When they called my name, I was jumping up and down in my robe in my living room. I called my family immediately to video chat with them and share the news.
This is a big dream that I wasn’t quite certain would ever happen. I didn’t know that I was ever going to get an opportunity to even be in a lead position to get a nomination. When the nominations happened that morning, just a flood of emotions overtake you. It’s a bit of relief, extreme gratitude, and you’re also in disbelief. But, honestly, it really is about the work — and doing the work is actually the reward, as opposed to working for an award.
The musical ultimately got 12 nominations, so that was probably an amazing feeling as well.
Yes, and it’s a lot of firsts for all of us. I think this material is so special, and it kind of commands your respect and commands you to step up your game. For everyone to be acknowledged in a particular category, I think it’s a testament to the love that we actually have for The Temptations and the love that we have for the piece, and I think that’s reflected in the nominations.
Let’s talk about The Temptations. You portray the only living original member. What did you learn from Otis Williams?
When I met him, we showed him the first act of the show, and since then he’s been an immediate source of wealth. He’s been so open, warm and candid with his experiences. He’s very protective of the story, as he should be, and he’s protective of his brothers. And now he’s adopted us, so he’s very protective of us, too.
I count it a blessing to have him as a resource because the other four guys don’t have that same experience. He invited us to his house in Los Angeles, and it was amazing to spend one-on-one time with him. I got to know him as a man, as a son and as a black artist. I was able to look at him not just as an icon but as a black artist like myself.
There are many powerful scenes, but one particular moment is when Otis learns that his son has died. How did you channel that energy and translate that to the stage?
Every night is different. The night you saw, there were more tears from me than had happened for a long time. Grief happens differently for different people, and in different moments in your life it can happen differently. What I allowed myself to do is to surrender to that moment and allow whatever that grief feels like in that moment to come out. I don’t try to force it. If I’m honest in that moment, I feel like the audience can feel it as well. I don’t want to ever put on a performance. That’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to tell a story. I’m here to bring you along on this journey.
The musical is set in the ’50s and ’60s but still feels of the moment. What are the messages in the story that resonate with you that people need to hear today?
What I love about this music is that it is timeless. In the time that it was written and performed, there was civil unrest. And then you parallel that with what’s happening in Alabama and other states with abortion laws. You parallel it to senseless violence against black people by police. There’s a lot of civil unrest and issues that we deal with today that we’re still fighting as people. And in this country there’s just a lot of tension, and the man who is running the country is dividing us.
This music gives us an example of how we can protest the establishment and protest things that are unjust. This music is kind of a beacon for hope that we can come together and fight the issues that are happening in our community. I’m really proud to sing this music and happy to show young people who didn’t grow up with The Temptations. It’s great to show them that when there’s something wrong in this country, say something, express that, protest that, fight that. I think The Temptations did a good job of channeling that through their music. I think that it’s an example today in how we can continue to fight because there are a lot of issues that as African Americans, as artists, as women, there’s things to fight. The fight never stops, and this is an example to keep the fight going.
What is next for you? Do you want to stay on Broadway?
Right before I booked this job, I was doing a TV show called “Difficult People” on Hulu with Gabourey Sidibe. Then I did a movie called “Marshall” with Chadwick Boseman. It kind of wet the whistle as to what I really want to do. I would love to make movies. That’s always been a dream of mine. I’m hoping this will be an opportunity to be seen for some really big projects.
What has been one of the big takeaways from “Ain’t Too Proud”?
I think that this Broadway musical is hopefully an inspiration to young black male artists. I love that this show shows five strong black male leads. We are not always sidekicks, and we’re not always just in the ensemble. There’s nothing wrong with either of those roles; I was both. But my dream was to always lead. And there are very few examples: Norm Lewis, Billy Porter, Brian Stokes Mitchell and others before me. But to have five of us in “Ain’t Too Proud,” it is an important time in our culture to see that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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