Charles Holt hears voices. He collects voices. Studies voices. The Broadway actor also possesses quite a voice of his own — one that’s rung out from the ensemble of Disney’s The Lion King. He performed in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and in Europe he toured as the first African-American Rocky in a professional company of The Rocky Horror Show. He left a lot of that behind, to find his true voice — and to follow voices calling out to him. Holt’s in Memphis, Monday Oct. 24 speaking at a benefit dinner for Facing History and Ourselves. Maybe "speaking" is the wrong verb. He'll perform his solo show about 14 people who changed Memphis:The Upstanders. It’s a project Holt’s developed with Facing History. It’s a good example of how he answered a call he heard while he was working in New York.
“I was in the Lion King for almost 5-years,” Holt says. “And the time came when I just thought I should be doing something else.” A mentors advised him not to just walk away from a successful show, and he listened. But Holt also started to figure out ways to find a life in performance outside the Broadway houses he usually played.
“I felt like Lion King was limiting me,” he says.
Holt grew up in Lake Providence, a small, Nashville-area community founded in 1868. He was often amused and inspired by the town elders — the way they moved and spoke. And as a younger artist, he was prone to satirizing their mannerisms. “I would get in trouble,” he says, remembering the family’s response to his antics. But in those moments of acting up Holt discovered his love for creating characters, and when he needed to grow creatively, that’s exactly what he started doing. Then he created an avenue for sharing those characters.
“I started calling colleges and universities, creating my own tour,” he says. Monday nights are dark on Broadway, so he’d fly out Sunday nights, do his own thing on Monday, them be back on Broadway Tuesday night.
After he left Lion King Holt realized his character-creating wasn’t just a passing fancy. “It became my job,” he says.
Holt’s been working with Facing History and Ourselves for two years, developing some Memphis characters. His show introduces audiences to folks like Dr. Sheldon Korones who worked to create a neonatal center in the urban core; Lucy Tibbs who testified before Congress about massacres of African-Americans and riots; Civil Rights leaders like Rev. Billy Kyles, and Maxine and Vasco Smith.
“People who have gone beyond the call of duty to speak their truth on things they felt so connected with,” Holt says.
The characters speak to Holt. “Like Lucy Tibbs,” he says. “There was a time when she felt like cowering down, because she knew her life was at stake. But something in her rose up. I hear it all, and I all these people when I’m reading the manuscripts.”
Those elders he grew up with, and imitated are the examples he draws from. “They were upstanders too,” he says.