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My Time With Tiki

Was I excited that Tiki Barber joined the cast of Kinky Boots? You bet your damn boots, I was.

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My Time With Tiki


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Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

My phone started buzzing like you would not believe the minute the news broke.

“Bro. Insane.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Isn’t that your part?”
“Don’t tell him you’re a Patriots fan.
“Y’all closing and now this?!”
“Who’s next? Tom Brady?

Of course, I already knew what these texts were about.

Tiki Barber was joining the cast of Kinky Boots, and I was now his understudy. Over the next few weeks, the question I got more than any other was: “Are you excited for Tiki Barber?”

The answer was “absolutely yes.”

One of the more vivid memories I have of living in New York is a text I got from a friend that read: “Eddie George is not only making his Broadway debut before me, but he’s getting his card before me too. I don’t know which one hurts more.”

I still laugh about that text, and now here I was on the other end of it.

People on Facebook instantly started jumping to my defense, one that I didn’t ask for. “Maybe give one of the understudies a shot”, “This is stupid” or “People have worked their entire lives to make it to Broadway and they just handed a lead role to football player.”

I’d like to talk about these two things.

One, I’m Tiki’s understudy. I love my job. It’s the best. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Swings and understudies are the unsung heroes of our community and if you don’t tell your swings that you appreciate them at least once a week, you need to check yourself.

One of my most cherished memories was cobbling together a cut show when the plague hit our cast. Before every scene, us swings would gather around and discuss who was doing what set move and how and essentially figuring out whose fingers could plug what holes before the dam bursts. It was a group of people who knew the show so fully and so well, that in this scorched earth worst-case scenario, we were the last line of defense. “Swing” will always be the most honored title I have had bestowed upon me.

Within that, I know my place. I’m here to be the second string principal. The principal tracks I cover aren’t easy, and that’s because of the massive shoes (pun intended) that Marcus Neville and Daniel Stewart Sherman entrust me with when they’re not at the theater.

Which brings me to the second point:

If you’ve seen Kinky Boots, you know one thing for certain: Daniel Stewart Sherman’s casting as Don is such a goddamn masterpiece it should be hung in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa. Seriously. Danny’s amazing, and when I joined the show, I was nervous as hell to go on as Don. Why? A bunch of reasons.

First off, Danny is very, very, very good at his job. Seriously, you have a month to see the show, get down here and see it. There are so many little things Danny does as Don that are so above my understanding of art form I have chosen to make my living doing that it’s stupid. There’s literally a moment when Danny turns his face red at the drop of a hat, and I’m positive it’s witchcraft at this point.

Don also carries a very interesting role within the show: he’s the first point of contact for the audience and he’s also the villian. We all know a Don in our lives, just a brute who doesn’t think right, and is too stubborn to allow anyone or anything to change the temperature of a room.

Aaron Walpole who played Don on the tour once told me “Don is the most important character outside of the show, because he’s the one who resonates the most with the people who think they don’t need the message of the show, but often they need it more than anyone else.” Playing the role of Don takes drive, care and a willingness to be the ugliness in the world of sparkle so that those others who come in with his mindset, come to see the light.

It’s hard. It’s really hard.

Let me tell you guys something. For the last five weeks, Tiki Barber has absolutely crushed it as Don, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about that. When Danny’s replacement was announced, a lot of us got a bit worried. Not about Tiki and his abilities, not at all, but about what the show is without Danny. For 6 years, one man has played Don, and he was the backbone for our show each night. Danny’s Don brought “change” to the party every night.

Tiki squashed those fears pretty quick. The guy is a professional.

Do I think I could learn the game of football and then join a professional team in 5 weeks? No. Could I join the NFL? Absolutely not. So why were people already discounting Tiki before he stepped on stage?

Getting to Broadway took me 19 years of pushing myself to become the best artist I could be. It was not easy. You know what’s even harder? Playing in the NFL and then pivoting you career to Broadway. You know how I know that? Only TWO PEOPLE HAVE DONE IT.

How difficult is it? Don has to hit a high D at the end of the show. In a role that does minimal singing throughout the entire show, you are saddled with the task of staying warm throughout the entire show to make sure you can nail this note. It’s tough. Trust me, I sang “Don’t Stop Believin” 666 times. It’s hard to stay ready the entire show, but that’s why we’re professionals.

Tiki nails this, of course.

Don also has to navigate a boxing match at the top of Act Two. It’s a tough number because of the specificity within the slow-motion utilized to create this moment truly pop. Tiki not only makes this a highlight of the show but adds his own unique flair to it, maximizing the full comedic value. To say that I stole things from Tiki Barber when I went on for him while he called the inaugural AAF game, would be an understatement. After all, good artists borrow, great artists steal. That’s Pablo Picasso.

Tiki also has some incredible ensemble ad-libs. For example, when Charlie tosses a last (a hard plastic mold used to shape the leather around the foot) into the air during Step One, Tiki once told me, “Look at him, who does he think he is? Julian Edelman?” In an attempt to one-up Tiki, I said, “No, he threw it straight up in the air, so he’s more like Case Keenum.” Without skipping a beat, Tiki said, “Or Blake Bortles.”

The guy is quick, y’all. Gotta keep your head on a swivel.

At a talk-back this past week, an audience member asked Tiki if he ever thought he would be trading in his cleats for a pair of heels. There was obvious laughter, because it seems like a silly question, and it is. And Tiki gave an answer I’ll never forget.

“I just so happened to be drafted by the New York Giants, and this place became my home. New York City has given me so much, but the number one thing it has given me, are opportunities at every corner. No matter where you look, there are opportunities everywhere in this city. It’s up to you to take them and make the best of them.”

Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. Almost two years ago, I looked my fiancée in the eyes and told her I was done with the business we call “show.” I was tired, I was weak, and I was hungry for stability. I was ready to call it quits, when my agent e-mailed me with an audition for the tour.

I fought with my fiancée, saying how one audition would lead to another and to another, and then I’m right back in the cycle I was so ready to leave.

Being an actor is hard, both within the work and outside of the work. In his 2013 Tony Award speech Billy Porter, the original Lola, referred to those times where you aren’t working as “lean years” and he’s absolutely right. They are lean as hell, although you’re hungry for anything, your plate remains empty.

But still, I went to that audition, and the rest is history.

Opportunities at every corner.

Through his time here at Kinky Boots, I have seen Tiki Barber grow as an actor. Within a track so perfectly sculpted and formed, he’s been able to find his own moments, to tread a new path and give a new wave of audience members, who wouldn’t normally see our little show about a factory in Northampton, England, a new way of looking at the world.

He’s done all of that with the grace and kindness of a true professional. And he’s reminded me of why you do the work, and what the work can bring to you.

Can I run an RPO offense? No. Can I explain it? No. Can Tiki Barber? Absolutely he could. So much of this show’s magnificent direction by Jerry Mitchell feels like a playbook for success. And today, Tiki Barber crosses the goal line, breaking the plane and finishing victorious.

Tiki Barber made his Broadway debut in the same show that I did, and I will relish in that fact for as long as I live.

And to Tiki, if you’re reading this, I will miss your ad-libs, your friendship, and your ability to come into work and share your infectious smile with all of us. I may never like the New York Giants, but you’ll always be my favorite.

Happy Trails, Tiki!

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Diane Bradsell

    March 4, 2019 at 8:48 am

    This is so great Justin. I love how you are relishing in your accomplishments. I hope I get to see you in Kinky before it leaves Broadway.!! Diane

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