Almost two years ago, actor Austen Jaye was scrolling through his Twitter timeline and his friend, writer and digital content creator Issa Rae, posted an article that posed the question: “Will Hollywood Allow Blacks To Make Love On The Big Screen?” The story featured a photo of Hollywood greats Harry Belafonte and the late Dorothy Dandridge from the iconic film “Carmen Jones” and that visual sparked curiosity in Jaye.
“While the subject of the article grabbed my attention, I was even more interested in why we never hear about Mr. Belafonte. We mostly hear about Sidney Poitier. So I started researching Harry Belafonte because I was curious about his story. I felt he was forgotten,” he told AlwaysAList.com.
The 31-year-old actor admits that while he was aware that Belafonte had a career in entertainment—”I knew he recorded ‘The Banana Boat Song’ with the ‘Day-O’ chorus in the movie ‘Beetle Juice!”—like many of his millennial peers, he no knowledge of the depth of Belafonte’s storied journey.
“That’s part of why I felt the need to create this show,” he admitted. “Harry Belafonte definitely isn’t part of my generation and so I had never heard his story. Most conversations I have about Mr. Belafonte, I have to ask if they even know about him or who he even is. This play will enlighten a new generation because I believe he deserves more.”
It was July of 2014 and the Los Angeles-born talent found himself immersed in research and earnestly exploring Belafonte’s life, which includes his work as a civil rights activist and humanitarian.
“My friends tend to call me the king of research and that absolutely kicked in once I decided to find out more about this great man,” he laughed. “I ran across the 2011 documentary ‘Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song;’ along with his memoir, ‘My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance.’ I wondered why no one had done a movie on him like ‘Ray.'”
Inspired by the journey of Belafonte—a Caribbean-American pop star turned Hollywood leading man and then advocate for the anti-apartheid movement before becoming a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador—Jaye got with his writing partner, director Aaron Braxton and the two began crafting a one-man show about the 89-year-old living legend.
“One thing led to another and I found myself creating a solo show out of respect and to pay homage. We created something that is respectful, honest and very true to his life,” said Jaye.
The end result was “Belafonte Unauthorized: A Shared Humanity,” a theater production that opens April 1, 2016 at Moments Playhouse (665 N Heliotrope Dr.) in Los Angeles.
“I want audiences to walk away feeling they can be 100-percent authentic. This show will allow people to feel connected to the ups and downs of an American Hero,” offered Jaye, who bares a striking resemblance to Belafonte.
“I named it ‘A Shared Humanity’ because outside of the material things in life, we all search for the same things emotionally at times,” he continued. “Mr. Belafonte took on the plight of the civil rights movement, but most importantly he fought and still continues to fight for all humanity.”
In addition to starring in “Belafonte Unauthorized: A Shared Humanity,” Jaye has become a leading man in the digital space, appearing on four Black&Sexy TV web series including “Yellow,” “Roomieloverfriends,” “Hello Cupid” and “Sexless.” The latter three series were picked up as part of a three-show deal with BET and have also aired on the cable network.
“It’s all about visibility and the web has allowed that,” Jaye said about the impact of digital content. “People that didn’t know me before acknowledge my talent now more than ever before. The web helped me gain a few extra viewers and when people rock with you, they will fight for you.”
The actor, who has appeared on TBS’s “Angie Tribeca” and CBS’s “The Bold and the Beautiful,” said there are two series currently on TV that he would love to work on.
“‘The Carmichael Show’ has to be my new favorite show. The writing and subject matter is both brilliant and hilarious. It’s honest and they take major risks to help educate their audience. Definitely a show I’d love to be part of,” he offered, before adding: “And ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ is another one. Who wouldn’t want to work alongside Viola Davis? Her professionalism as an actress and every moment she acts is a true experience. Her vulnerability is second to none. I’d love to have a chance to play a role opposite her.”
For its debut run, “Belafonte Unauthorized: A Shared Humanity” will play 15 shows Friday through Sunday at Moments Playhouse from April 1 to May 1.