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As a producer on ‘Fat Ham,’ Cynthia Erivo discovers a newfound role: mentor

Erivo and actor Calvin Leon Smith share how they’ve bonded and the change it’s made in their lives.

(L-R) Cynthia Erivo and Calvin Leon Smith (Credit: David M. Benett/Getty and Courtesy of Polk & Co.)

When Cynthia Erivo signed on as a co-producer of Broadway’s “Fat Ham,” she expected to be involved, especially with the cast. “I know what it is to do an eight-show week,” Erivo, who won a Tony Award for her turn in “The Color Purple,” told Broadway News. “I know it’s not easy. I know that sometimes you do it with producers at the helm who aren’t thoughtful or caring. So I wanted to be part of an experience that [the cast] could look back on with fondness.”

“I hope they can say, ‘Cynthia showed up for us. Cynthia gave a sh*t,’” she urged.

So far, Erivo has shown up a lot — to marketing events, on social media, even hosting a post-show talkback that uncovered revelations about the Pulitzer-winning play — all while filming the “Wicked” movie and premiering her new film “Drift.” But Erivo has also gone out of her way to be present for one “Fat Ham” company member in particular: Calvin Leon Smith.

Smith plays Larry, a closeted military officer invited to the backyard barbecue that is the set of James Ijames’ queer, Black, contemporary reimagining of “Hamlet.” Smith originated the role of Larry in the play’s Off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater and now reprises his turn at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre. An actor at the beginning of his career, Smith was enticed by Larry’s evolution, as he transforms from a gay man constrained by a secret to one who embraces his own identity.

What Erivo learned is that portraying that arc came with deep struggle because of its closeness to Smith’s lived experience. Like Larry, Smith is a Black, gay man from the South — Tennessee, to be exact. Smith grew up in a strict conservative Christian home with a Baptist minister stepfather. “I remember learning early on that gay was wrong,” Smith shared. “It was sinful, it was detestable, an abomination. And I always wanted to please my parents, and in doing so, there was this suffocation of self.”

By playing Larry, Smith has traveled his own arc. Whereas the role used to ressurect trauma and pain, performing the show now feels like a “gift” and “an opportunity to tell a story that hopefully changes minds,” Smith said.

As a Black, queer woman, Erivo connected to Smith; he and his story captured her attention.

After meeting him at a marketing event for the show, seeing his performance and hearing his story at the April 9 talkback, Erivo invited him for a one-on-one chat.

“My understanding was that this was going to be a conversation where she was just going to give me a lot of sound advice and I knew I was going to leave with a bit more confidence — and that remains true,” Smith said. But it also led to a more personal and tangible connection.

When Erivo learned that Smith’s family would not attend “Fat Ham” (his Broadway debut) due to their lack of acceptance of his sexuality and the queer story he’s a part of telling, she told him: “I will be your family now.”

“I had a real struggle with a sense of community because growing up I was so pushed to the outskirts,” said Smith. “And here is this dark-skinned queer woman — who is at a point in her career that I aspire to — saying to me that not only do I have what it takes and that I’m talented, but that I’m loved.”

“Calvin has that spark, the thing you can’t name but know it when you see it,” she said. “I was incredibly moved by his performance. I think he has it.”

“I hope if he’s struggling to make choices in his career, I can possibly lend an ear and maybe some words to help decide,” Erivo continued. She also introduced Smith to people in her network and is helping him navigate the industry. “If he needs a little emotional support, I hope I can be on his list and pay it forward a little.”

“I love being onstage, in front of the camera,” Erivo said, “but I thoroughly enjoy learning about how the sausage gets made. I’m enjoying being a facilitator of art, not just a creator.” She holds onto that urge to nurture — not just Smith but the “Fat Ham” company — and is excited because producing “gives me a chance to make a little room for newer faces.”

She added, “If coming on as a producer means more great work, then I’m willing to muck in!”