Baltimore's ambassador in 'Hairspray'

Carver graduate Eric Anthony brings his energy to Broadway show


February 16, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | By J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

First things first: The name is pronounced "DU-wayne."

Actor Eric Anthony -- the only bona fide Baltimore native in the cast of Hairspray, the hit Broadway musical set in 1960s Baltimore -- is discussing the fictitious biography he has invented for his character. In the program, that character, a member of the chorus, is identified merely as Duane.

But engaging in a practice many actors find helpful, Anthony, a 1997 graduate of the Carver Center for Arts and Technology, has filled in the gaps in Duane's personal history.

He describes his character as a 15-year-old African-American who grew up in a rowhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, around the corner from the West Baltimore rowhouse where the actor himself grew up. Now a sophomore at Patterson Park High School, Duane has a girlfriend, Shelley, one of the Caucasian characters in the Hairspray chorus. Their imaginary romance, Anthony explains, reflects the musical's pro-integration theme.

Duane also participates in extracurricular activities. "He is the president of Future Business Leaders of America," Anthony says. And then, as if to indicate how closely he identifies with Duane, the actor slips into first person as he adds, "I am in the school choir."

The cast members of Hairspray are such staunch believers in the usefulness of fictional bios, they have even created a mock Patterson Park yearbook. In its pages, Duane is voted "best-dressed student and the most likely to succeed."

Extrapolating into the future, Anthony has made sure that the yearbook's prediction of success comes true. He's given his character the full name, Duane Rudolph Reade, the first and last names being that of the New York drug store chain, Duane Reade, which he envisions his character founding.

Although Anthony's own alma mater didn't hand out such accolades, if the school had chosen someone "most likely to succeed," Anthony's burgeoning stage career suggests he would have made an excellent candidate. Tomorrow night, he will be honored in his hometown when he receives the first Eubie Award, an honor created by the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center to recognize "young performers and artists who bring pride to Maryland."

'Dazzling' Duane

Anthony made his professional debut only 16 months after graduating from Carver. He spent a year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, then decided to jumpstart his career. His first professional audition led to a role in the national tour of Rugrats: A Live Adventure, which played the Lyric Opera House in 1999.

By the time he auditioned for Hairspray, he was in his second year in The Lion King (one year in Toronto and the second on Broadway). Leaving a proven hit for the uncertainty of a new show could have been risky. But in Lion King, Anthony was only a swing, the term used for an understudy who can play several roles. From one day to the next, there was no guarantee he'd be on stage. In Hairspray, he's in every performance, and he also understudies a key supporting role, that of Seaweed J. Stubbs, a part he has now played five times.

But even when he's just Duane in the chorus, Anthony is "dazzling," says Hairspray director Jack O'Brien. "When he's moving on stage you can hardly watch anyone else. I've never seen anyone so thoroughly kinetic. He's kind of a spark plug. He's an energy source wherever he is on stage.

"Sometimes you have to tap him down a little bit because he's virtually ready to explode. ... He has a gift and he's going to be able to exploit it in his career."

Anthony's talent also caught the early attention of filmmaker John Waters, whose 1988 movie is the basis of Hairspray. "I noticed him right from the beginning. I can remember in the first rehearsals, he really jumped out, and it thrilled me when he said he was from Baltimore," Waters says.

The actor's promising career as well as his loyalty to Baltimore -- he comes home to visit family, friends and former teachers at least once a month -- are among the reasons he was chosen to receive the Eubie Award. Anthony will accept the award at a gala dinner at the Eubie Blake Center. Waters and Mayor Martin O'Malley are honorary co-chairmen of the event.

Tomorrow morning, the actor will participate in a panel discussion on the journey from Baltimore to Broadway.

The Baltimore expert

For Anthony, being honored by the Blake Center has particular resonance. In the mid-1990s, when he was studying at the Arena Players Youtheatre, he was cast as a newsboy in a revival of Shuffle Along, produced by the center. "He was just wonderful and so agile and just made a little nothing role into something," recalls Camay Calloway Murphy, the center's executive director. A year later, Anthony played the lead in a dramatization of Murphy's children's book, Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?

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