From Broadway lights to hometown heights

Writer: Mathany Ahmed
Photo: Duane Tinkey

By the time Napoleon Douglas takes the stage at Noce Jazz Club on a warm spring night, he’s exhausted from a 12-hour day leading youth singing workshops. But his energy still fills the room as he flits from table to table, greeting old friends and club regulars. He helps tend the bar before stepping into the spotlight.

“When my chin is on the ground, I pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again,” he croons to the audience.

His voice carries the evidence of classical training, in the classroom and on Broadway, but has an innate charm that can’t be taught. He dances freely, laughs at his own forgetfulness and prays out loud that the liquor in his glass won’t affect his voice.

As comfortable as he seems in front of an audience, it’s hard to believe he didn’t always see himself destined for the limelight. “I’ve always performed, but for my whole life, I ran away from it,” he said. “It seems like I’ve always fallen into it, and that God’s always made a space for me to do it.”

Douglas has stepped into the spaces he says were created for him all over the globe. Now the performer with rare talent is entering a new era, back in his hometown of Des Moines.

He started performing as a child, first in holiday plays at Corinthian Baptist Church, then in the show choir at Roosevelt High School and later Drake University. He flirted with other interests — played football, ran track, helped lead a host of student organizations and dreamed of becoming a doctor or social worker. “I changed my major 12 times,” he said. “Music was the only consistent thing.”

After college, he took a wild chance on an open audition in Memphis, where he landed the role of Seaweed Stubbs in “Hairspray,” his first big role. Over the next decade, theater took him from Denver to New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. He found all kinds of work either onstage or right next to it, like the yearlong stint as the food and beverage director at dinner-theater spot and the six months he spent teaching Shakespeare.

His latest role: the artistic director of the Pyramid Theatre Co. back here in his hometown. He guides the group’s vision and helps choose which shows to produce to further the company’s mission to stage both classics and new works by African American playwrights.

In his first year in the new role, he used his influence and what he called his “big old Broadway ideas” to make theater more accessible. The company put on shows at Des Moines Area Community College that involved nontraditional students and helped churches produce a few holiday plays. This summer, Pyramid debuted “The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body” by Lisa B. Thompson, which ends on July 7.

He also hopes to organize special events like a gospel cabaret, he said. “You know, for the people who want to go have a glass of wine and listen to Kirk Franklin on a Saturday night.”

Ultimately, Douglas dreams of building a stronger local arts community, to pay forward the support he received when he was just starting to perform. Without a church that taught him, a music teacher who paid for his voice lessons and a stage to welcome him home, Douglas said he never would have found the joy that performing has brought him.

“Art heals,” he said. “Art teaches you how to be a good person. Theater puts me in other people’s shoes, and that’s allowed me to walk in the world a lot more humbly.”

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