Hamilton is the surprise pop culture phenomenon of the year: a three hour Broadway musical about United States founding father Alexander Hamilton. And Jasmine Cephas Jones is one of its breakout stars,
Lin-Manuel Miranda, already renowned for his first stage production, Tony and Grammy award winning In the Heights, returned to Broadway in August 2015 with Hamilton, inspired in large part by a biography of the man written by Ron Chernow.
Combining the founding father’s intriguing backstory (a Caribbean immigrant who built the country’s first National Bank, took part in the country’s first sex scandal and later died in what is perhaps the country’s most infamous duel) with a primarily black and Latino cast rapping and singing hip-hop and R&B inspired numbers has been a genius addition to The Great White Way and beyond (the cast album hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Rap charts in November.)
While Miranda is the main man behind Hamilton, the entire cast has been lauded for their performances, for their adeptness at embodying these Revolutionary-era men and women in new and revolutionary ways.
For Cephas Jones, it is her Broadway debut playing the dual role of Peggy Schuyler (Hamilton’s sister-in-law) and Maria Reynolds (Hamilton’s mistress.) As she sits in the hair and makeup chair during the photoshoot for this cover, Cephas Jones suddenly looks up from her phone.
“Today is the one year anniversary of when we started previews at The Public. My entire life has changed in a year.”
The actress and singer, 26, may not have foreseen how much her life would change in 2015, but she did always know that she would make her way onto a stage someday.
“I started singing when I was little,” she says. “I did all the talent shows and I would go to my mother’s gigs and watch her sing as well.” In college, she got into acting, too.
“I always knew that I wanted to act, but I had to train for it,” she says. “I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse for theater and it changed everything. Studying the Meisner method of acting was intense, but it was the best thing to happen to me.”
But Cephas Jones didn’t learn all of her acting instincts from school. Not only was she spending time at her mother’s gigs as a child, she was picking up a lot of behind the scenes training from her veteran actor father, Ron Cephas Jones.
“What I love about how my father raised me,” she says, “is that he took me everywhere, from his auditions to the rehearsal room. He introduced me to everyone.”
Watching the way her father would study his scripts (“analyzing every word, every beat”) and writing his ideas for his characters on his dressing room mirrors, has inspired the actor Cephas Jones is today.
“Watching it all made me realize that it’s all about the work,” she says. “My father always told me that there is no such thing as a small role—it’s about how you play it and how much work you put into it. [In] everything I do, I try to put as much detail as possible. I learned that from my father.”
That philosophy has already proven to be the key to her success, as Cephas Jones’s dual roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds are two of the smaller main parts in the show—Peggy’s charm, in fact, lies in the fact that she is something of the “Forgotten Sister” of the trio, whereas Maria appears in only one number.
But Cephas Jones has embodied both women with a style uniquely her own; Penny is sweet-voiced and vivacious while Maria is sultry, bold and necessarily seductive. Both characters have become fan favorites due entirely to the woman who plays them.
“When I play Peggy, it’s so easy,” Cephas Jones says, “because most of the moments I share with Renee [Elise Goldsberry] and Phillipa [Soo], (who play Angelica Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, respectively.)
“They have become my family,” she continues. “They are the sisters I never had. All of our moments are genuine because we just love each other and laugh and have a blast.”
It’s that girl power energy, combined with Miranda’s writing each of the characters with distinctive and powerful voices, that has helped propel the women in Hamilton to memorable, show-stopping characters when, in any other show, they could have easily been relegated to the background.
As for Maria? “She’s a little different,” Cephas Jones admits. Not only is her performance as Hamilton’s mistress very physically involved, the vocals require an obvious amount of intensity.
“The red dress, the lipstick, the hair down, the walk—these are all of those little details that help me prepare,” she says.
Still, nothing could prepare Cephas Jones for just how huge of a cultural sensation her Broadway debut would become.
I knew that the music was special from day one. I couldn’t believe it when I first heard it. I couldn’t believe that I was about to be a part of this journey.
“I knew that the music was special from day one,” Cephas Jones says. “I couldn’t believe it when I first heard it. I couldn’t believe that I was about to be a part of this journey. But I had no idea that it was going to be so huge that we would do a special performance for the Democratic National Committee and then have the President of the United States make a speech afterward.”
Of course, Hamilton has made such a splash in large part because it has introduced a typically traditional crowd to the many ways that the non-traditional can yield incredible things.
“I’m all about stepping out the box. Lin [Manuel Miranda] breaks all the rules and he does it in the smartest way possible,” Cephas Jones says. “It’s classy, hardcore and you will laugh until your stomach hurts and then cry your eyes out.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if a debut Broadway performer found themselves overwhelmed by the expectations of being part of such a ground breaking show, but Cephas Jones has always been focused on more important things.
“The only time I felt pressure was on the first day of rehearsal, proving to the rest of the cast that I could do this,” she remembers. “I was the last one to come on board at The Public.”
“But, other than that, I was more excited to show this to the world, to show people that things can be done differently, and that it will work. People are starving for something fresh, something original. This is it.”
So, what has kept Cephas Jones so cool under pressure? Being a New York native just might have something to do with it. She grew up in Brooklyn and attended LaGuardia, the infamous performing arts high school. So the bright lights of the marquee were never far from her mind.
“Broadway has always been one of my goals,” she says. “I love my city. I love that I am in a show that tells an exciting story that takes place in New York. There’s a line in the song “The Schuyler Sisters” that I sing with Renee and Phillipa that goes “History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world” and my Brooklynite self always gets a feeling of joy when I sing that line.”
Broadway has always been one of my goals. I love my city. I love that I am in a show that tells an exciting story that takes place in New York.”
Cephas Jones will be in the show until at least Summer 2016, but of course, she has already started looking toward the future.
When discussing what is coming next for her she is immediately adamant about rallying against the typical roles actresses are relegated to as they age.
“I’m only 26 and I am already worrying about this,” she says. “It’s bull that women are still treated this way in the industry. But I’m planning to be Judi Dench. I want to be around for a long time.”
And when it comes to what she’ll be doing next, Cephas Jones sees herself working beyond the Broadway stage.
“There is so much I want to do,” she says. “Being in a show that is changing the game on all levels and is on Broadway—it’s a dream come true. But I can’t see myself living the Broadway lifestyle forever.”
“I say this a lot to people, but I don’t want to put myself in a box,. My next project might be something completely different. Whatever is up next, whether it’s a TV show or a film, I would just love to stretch my creativity and find a role I can sink my teeth into.”
In the meantime, Cephas Jones is enjoying all of the excitement—and perks—that come with her role.
“I met Beyoncé. I have had so many Beyoncé concerts in the mirror with my hairbrush ever since I was a little girl. I was star struck and couldn’t talk,” she says.
It’s not hard to imagine the scores of girls who will be singing into their own hairbrushes to “The Schuyler Sisters” and hoping that they will one day get to meet their idol backstage. With Cephas Jones ‘s passion and persistence, it seems inevitable.
-Written by Kerri Jarema; Photographed by Liz Besanson
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