THEATERMANIA: Were you familiar with Sammy Davis Jr. before you took the role?
OBBA BABATUNDE: I had the great pleasure and honor of knowing Sammy personally. We met in 1978 when I was co-starring in a world tour with Liza Minnelli. After he complimented my performance, I said: "I want to thank you for coming in through the kitchen so I could come in the front door." His eyes welled up and tears went down his face as he thanked me for that. I knew him from that time until his passing. He'd sit me down like he was like my uncle and tell me to never quit. "Know that everything that could be done to you has already been done to me." That guided me many times in my own career.
TM: Do you consider him an important figure in African-American history?
OB: I would say that he's an important figure in American history. Sammy lived at a time when America was in great turmoil about race and he navigated his way through it in a way that probably no one before him had done. Sammy was headlining in hotels when Jim Crow laws were still in place. He was one of the men in the first integrated infantry. It is extremely important that we see his iconic life within the time frame in which he lived. At the end of the day, the show is a musical -- we didn't want to make it a history lesson -- but we do touch on many of the conflicting and controversial stories that were associated with his life.
TM: Did you look at archived footage to approximate his performance style?
OB: My intention was not to do an impersonation or a caricature of Sammy; I'd like to say it's my attempt at a reincarnation. Many people remember him through extreme caricatures, but he wasn't just the guy who said "hey man!" There was a heart that had been broken and a mind that had been challenged to be able to endure some of the most horrific attacks on his spirit. I say that it is not what happened to Sammy that made him heroic and iconic but how he responded, which was with tenacity and an absolute unwillingness to quit.
TM: When you say he suffered attacks on his spirit, which do you first think of?
OB: He had a relationship with [white actress] Kim Novak and they both were told that the relationship was not allowed. Additionally, to counteract the bad publicity, Sammy was forced into an arranged marriage with a woman he didn't even know. That resounds loudly because we're dealing with this situation today with the gay community being told who they are allowed to love and marry. It's just another form of modern day "Big Brother" control which is one of the things that Sammy fought. People can see him and his politics however they choose but what I knew about Mr. D is that he refused to be told who he could be. People said he converted to Judaism because he wanted to be white. Well, that speaks to the person's ignorance, because there were black Jews in Harlem in 1929. No matter which way he went, and we touch on this in the show, there was judgment at the cost of alienation from both blacks and whites at one point in his life.
TM: What do you most hope this show tells people about Sammy Davis Jr.?
OB: I would hope that we, like with Michael Jackson, are reminded that there was a great man inside this ball of talent who was probably defined and given to us to get us to take a look at ourselves -- as a country and as a society. I believe that Michael Jackson was the Sammy Davis Jr. of his time; they both carried a huge load and at the end of the day a person is more than their art and there's a human being inside the entertainer.