Blake Brewer ’21 has been performing most of his life, but he didn’t really “arrive” until last fall, when Syracuse Stage cast him in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast . Co-produced by Syracuse University’s Department of Drama , the show allowed him to understudy the antagonist, Gaston, as well as tackle four other supporting roles on a nightly basis.
That Gaston is usually performed by a white actor is indicative of Broadway’s so-called diversity problem. Brewer’s casting also suggests the University’s willingness to tackle sensitive issues of race and ethnicity. “It was the first time I felt like I was hired for my talent instead of my skin color,” admits Brewer, praising the University for addressing such concerns in the classroom, on stage and throughout the community.
A senior pursuing a B.F.A. in musical theater in the College of Visual and Performing Arts , he appreciates his “tight-knit” group of peers in the drama department. “Learning how to work with others has benefitted me as an artist and a person.”
Mastering His Craft
Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, Brewer may have been middle class, but he didn’t always feel like it. “Money was tight because I was one of three boys in the house, and my dad had to retire early because of a medical condition,” he explains. Brewer found solace in extracurricular activities, including long-distance running, swimming, skating and freestyle rope jumping.
Acting, however, was his first love. He made his public debut at age 8 and, in time, added singing and dancing (i.e., jazz and hip-hop) to his resume. “I was the kid who talked too much for his own good. Performing became an outlet for all my creative energy,” says Brewer, whose idols include Denzel Washington, Jeremy Pope, Kerry Washington and Dulé Hill.
Brewer found that his athleticism enhanced his performance skills. In addition to taking private voice and piano, he rounded out his training with classes at the Michael Woolson Studio in Hollywood and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
A 2017 article in Variety ranking VPA’s drama department among the best in the nation compelled Brewer to apply to Syracuse University. “I knew that I needed to be part of this community,” he says in his velvety bass-baritone voice. “The drama department has a close relationship with Syracuse Stage, allowing me to perform alongside professionals and work toward my union membership.”
Rebecca Karpoff, associate teaching professor of musical theater, recalls first meeting Brewer at his VPA audition in L.A. “His eager personality and raw talent were immediately evident. He has grown into that rare combination so prized in musical theater: the triple threat,” she says, referring to his ability to act, sing and dance.
No doubt Brewer’s receipt of an Our Time Has Come Scholarship has enhanced his University experience. Awarded to him last year, the scholarship provides financial aid and leadership training to Black and Latino students. “I want to take some of the pressure off my parents, who are putting two kids through college,” says Brewer, who also credits the scholarship for expanding his professional network. “As an Our Time Has Come Scholar, I’ve had invaluable conversations with many alumni and special guests. They know what I need to do to succeed in this business.”
Assistant Professor Katherine McGerr, who first directed Brewer as a sophomore in the raucous musical The Wild Party , contends there is more to him than meets the eye. “Blake has a genuine enjoyment of his craft and a self-motivation that enables him to meet challenges so impressively.” She recalls once asking him to audition for a role outside of his usual range and then watching him apply his technique to arrive at a result that suited his strengths and revealed new facets of the character. “I’m always excited to see what he will do next,” McGerr adds.
Case in point: Brewer surprised everyone this past summer when he organized a live video fundraiser for Amazing Grace Conservatory, a Black-owned performing arts center that he used to attend in South L.A. No sooner had Brewer launched into his first musical number than donations began pouring in, totaling $1,000. The customarily outspoken actor was speechless. “They’re a nonprofit that has given scholarships to so many students, including me,” Brewer says. “Because of the pandemic, I knew that some kid might not receive a scholarship or be afforded the same opportunities I once had. It was my mission to fill a need.”
Notes Assistant Professor Rufus Bonds Jr., who recently directed Brewer in a departmental production of A Grand Night for Singing : “His personality reflects who he is and how he shows up in the world. He is an artist focused on the betterment of humanity.”
Destined to Succeed
Despite the pandemic, Brewer is busier than ever. He’s currently appearing in Syracuse Stage’s Home for the Holidays , a video-on-demand show bursting with holiday songs and stories. “It’s been a lot of fun and has some great guests in it,” says Brewer, referring to the rich lineup of cast members, past and present, and fellow drama students.
The show is the latest chapter in Brewer’s storied career at the University, spanning eight regional theater productions, including those at Cortland Repertory Theatre and Bristol Valley Theater, and almost as many student shows.
While Brewer seems poised for a career on Broadway, Hollywood also is a possibility. His screen credits include Chokora , winner of the CineStory Screenwriting Award, and the official music video for “That’s Wassup,” by West Coast rapper Demrick.
But Brewer reserves special praise for Our Time Has Come, whose scholarships are awarded to only 20% of applicants nationwide. When the Office of Multicultural Advancement informed him of his receipt of the program’s Alpha Phi Alpha Delta Zeta Endowed Scholarship, he was, once again, at a loss for words.
“There’s no telling how my life would have gone if I hadn’t won that scholarship,” Brewer says. “I probably wouldn’t have been cast as Gaston or have had so many other life-changing experiences. It’s like I am destined to be here.”