'RENT's' New Angel, Javon King, Finds Magic in Iconic Role

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday October 24, 2021
Originally published on October 13, 2021

"RENT" hit Broadway 25 years ago like a seismic jolt. Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, channeled his and his friends' experiences of coming of age in New York City in the 1980s through the eyes of a group of East Village artists and Bohemians. His musical pulsated with authenticity and such youthful verve that his untimely death during rehearsals made the musical something of a legend even before it opened.

It has since become a cultural icon, winning a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Larson, running some 12 years on Broadway, and being turned into a Hollywood musical. One reason why the show resonated with its young audience is its characters, who at the onset struggle as they squat in an empty East Village apartment building on a cold Christmas Eve. One of the show's most endearing characters is Angel Dumott Schunard, a drag queen with HIV who hooks up with Tom Collins, a college professor and anarchist who also has the virus.

Angel stops the show with his first-act number "Today 4 U," his account of having made some money by being a hit man hired to take out an annoying dog. King first played the role in 2018,. when he was 21 and still in college. Now he returns to the role for the show's "25th Anniversary Farewell Tour," which comes to Boston's Shubert Theatre for a week-long run through Sunday.

EDGE spoke to King about what it like performing again, why Angel is such an important character and why "RENT" endures.

EDGE: How did you find your passion for theatre?

Javon King: I started a little late in the game. A lot of people figure out in middle school what they want to do with their life. I didn't really get the itch for acting until I got into high school. That was when I took my first musical theater class. It wasn't until the end of my junior year when I finally decided to pursue acting. I am lucky enough that I got into a great school. I had so much fun, and really found my passion and my love for it through high school.

EDGE: How is the tour going, especially during this pandemic?

Javon King: It's been fun. We just had our official opening night in Chicago, and the audiences so far have been absolutely electric. It's just amazing that, after this long period of time, that people are so happy to come back to a theater and are so energized. The audience gives us so much energy, and that just makes the show so much better. I'm happy to be a part of the "RENT" family. I love playing this role and telling this story all over again. I'm so excited to do it in front of people.

EDGE: How does it feel to be returning to the stage for live performances?

Javon King: It's a little surreal for me, to be completely honest. When we were in rehearsals in New York, I had to pinch myself every once in a while, to make sure it was real. I couldn't believe it was actually happening. Doing the previews, for me, solidified that people are here and excited to see the show.

EDGE: How has Angel changed your life?

Javon King: The first time I did the show, back in 2018, I was in the 20th anniversary tour. I was fresh out of college. I had left college, and I did a gap year to do the tour, and never looked back. I had just turned 21. The only experience that I had to show was the movie. I think playing this part and learning about Angel, who they were as a person, really changed my perspective of how I live my life. Angel has this energy about having this disease and not really letting it determine how she lives her life. She says, "I am not going to sit in a corner and dwell on it. I'm going to live my life to the fullest. I am going to encourage others to do the same, and give them as much love as I can along the way." I'm just taking pieces of Angel, of who she is, and incorporating that into my own life.

EDGE: What's it like playing such an iconic LGBT character?

Javon King: It is truly magical every single night. When I first started in the show a few years ago, I didn't understand the weight that Angel carries, because it didn't click for me that this was one of the most iconic characters who has ever been written on a musical theater stage. It's still surreal for me. I'm just so lucky that I get to play this part and tell this story. For the older generations, this person existed in their life, and they knew an Angel. There are people to this day who are still losing their lives to HIV/AIDS. I'm just so humbled and grateful to be able to just be one who gets to tell this story, and hopefully change someone's life.

EDGE: Angel has a lot of fabulous outfits. Do you have a favorite?

Javon King: The Santa outfit with the zebra tights. In ACT II, I get to wear a blonde wig and a raincoat with the pink boots. They are everything.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite "RENT" moment?

Javon King: That's hard to choose. I love all the songs. I think all the numbers so electrifying. Anytime I am not on stage, I have to contain myself onstage because there are many times where I'm like losing my mind internally and I can't move. I'm supposed to be watching, and can't have any reactions.

EDGE: Even after 25 years, why do you think that "RENT" continues to transcend the cultural barriers with the enthusiasm that it does?

Javon King: All that credit goes to Jonathan Larson. When he wrote the show twenty-five years ago, I don't think he knew how popular it was going to be. It was definitely a show way before its time. He put music and a story on a stage, just telling stories of real people and a real community that he saw every single day living the East Village. I think everyone, no matter who you are, no matter what walk of life you come from in this world, when you come and see this show you can relate to somebody on the stage in some capacity. The fact that still, after 25 years, "RENT" stills packs theaters, is amazing. It's a story of truth at the end of the day. It's not like one of those big Broadway shows where something spectacle is happening. It's a story of truth, and about the lives of real people. Jonathan was a trailblazer, and someone who was definitely ahead of his times.

EDGE: Is there a dream role that you would love to portray?

Javon King: Oh, yes! I would love, love, love, to play Lola in "Kinky Boots" someday. I like to call Lola and Angel soul sisters. Even though they're set in completely different times, I like to think that they would definitely be friends. My fingers are crossed that Lola and I will cross paths someday.

"RENT 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour" runs through October 17 at the Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information and for upcoming dates in the tour, visit this website.

Javon King, Devinré Adams in "RENT" 20th Anniversary Tour