Broadway performer James Stovall Jr. dies

Baltimore native was a Broadway performer and playwright

October 04, 2010|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

James Stovall Jr., a Baltimore native whose vocal gifts were evident even as a toddler and who went on to success on Broadway, died of heart failure at the age of 53 after a brief hospitalization in New York City.

Mr. Stovall, who graduated from Gilman School and studied voice and piano at the Peabody Conservatory before graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, died Saturday, Sept. 25, at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Mr. Stovall, son of the Rev. James Stovall Sr., pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Cooksville, Md., and himself a minister, produced an adaptation of Langston Hughes' Black Nativity while in Atlanta and took the production to New York City, where he had quick success in theater.

He was a stand-by in Bob Fosse's 1986 musical "Big Deal" and was a member of Fosse's final production, the 1986 revival of "Sweet Charity."

Mr. Stovall played the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in "Ragtime" on Broadway and also starred in the 2009 Broadway revival of "Finian's Rainbow."

Mr. Stovall's sister, Donna Stovall Jefferss, said her brother, older by three years, charmed their mother, Ella, with his sweet voice and his joyful smile and it was she, a music teacher in Baltimore City schools, who was determined that he would study music at Peabody.

"By the age of four, he was singing and singing loudly, for the purpose of making my mother laugh and smile," said Ms. Jefferss, who lives in Indianapolis. "By 5, he was playing the keys on the piano. It was almost prophetic that he would become a musical success."

Mr. Stovall was enrolled in Gilman among only a handful of African-American students because, Ms. Jefferss said, their parents were determined their children would be educated in an atmosphere of academic rigor and high expectations. Ms. Jefferss graduated from Roland Park Country School and, she, too, studied dance and music at Peabody.

"When Jimmy and I were at Gilman, there were probably only 10 or 12 African-American students, so we all became very close," said Michael Austin, of Baltimore, who spoke at Mr. Stovall's Baltimore memorial services Saturday at First Baptist Church on N. Caroline St. in Baltimore. He and Mr. Stovall graduated from Gilman in 1976.

"What you remember about him was that voice," said Mr. Austin, who had emailed Mr. Stovall about plans to get together just before he died. "It just didn't happen fast enough," he said.

The Rev. Stovall Sr. recalled how captivated then-Gilman headmaster Redmond C.S. Finney was by his son's singing of "Amazing Grace," and how he would find any excuse for the younger Mr. Stovall to lead the Gilman Glee Club in that hymn.

Ms. Jefferss said her mother, who preceded her son in death, made notes in his baby book that he was humming at the age of 2, singing at 3 and "singing loudly at 4."

"From a very early age his voice was beautifully melodic, powerful and resounding and it made our house very, very happy."

The elder Mr. Stovall said he paid his son a dollar to play the music for the church Sunday school as a youngster and earlier this year, when his church was temporarily without a music director, Mr. Stovall came from New York City every Sunday for three months to play and sing as his father preached.

Mr. Stovall was active in New York's African-American arts community and his other Broadway credits include "Once on This Island," "The Life" and "The Rocky Horror Show." He performed in a number of off-Broadway productions, including "Romance in Hard Times," "Stars in Your Eyes" and "Dessa Rose." He toured with Donny Osmond in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and played Marty in the Actors' Fund's anniversary concert of "Dreamgirls" in 2001.

"A light has dimmed in my life," said actress Hattie Winston Wheeler, who co-wrote with Mr. Stovall "Nativity: A Life," which over the years had featured performances by Stephanie Mills, Bebe Winans, Phylicia Rashad, Freddie Jackson and Keith David.

"He was a steward of African-American artistic and cultural history," she said.

Since 2006, he was the first artist-in-residence at the Dwyer Cultural Arts Center in Harlem.

The Morehouse College Glee Club will honor Mr. Stovall during its 100th anniversary season in 2011.

In addition to his father and his sister, Mr. Stovall is survived by his nieces Micaela Morales and Domanique Jefferss.

In lieu of flowers, donations in his name may be made to the James H. Stovall Jr. Education Fund, Advance Bank, 4801 Seton Ave., Baltimore 21215.

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