Blake Brewer ’21 has been performing most of his life, but he didn’t really “arrive” until the fall of 2019, 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 desire 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 the recent alumnus, praising the University for addressing such concerns in the classroom, on stage and throughout the community.
A graduate of the musical theater B.F.A. program, Brewer attributes his success to “tight-knit relationships” with people in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). “Learning how to work with others has benefitted me as an artist and a person.”
The technique I learned at Syracuse is what sustains me. It’s also what will take me to the next level of my career.—Blake Brewer ’21
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.” Brewer found solace in extracurricular activities, including long-distance running, swimming, skating and freestyle rope jumping.
But acting was his first love. Brewer made his public debut at age 8 and, in time, added singing and dancing to his resume. “I was the kid who talked too much for his own good. Performing became an outlet for all my creative energy,” he says, ticking off the names of his idols: Denzel Washington, Jeremy Pope, Kerry Washington and Dulé Hill.
Brewer eventually channeled his athleticism into performing. In addition to taking voice and piano lessons, he studied at both the Michael Woolson Studio in Hollywood and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
A 2017 Variety article ranking VPA’s drama department among the best in the nation compelled him to apply to Syracuse. “I knew that I needed to be part of this community,” he says in a velvety bass-baritone. “The drama department’s affiliation with Syracuse Stage allowed 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 grew into that rare combination so prized in musical theater: the triple threat,” she says, referring to his ability to act, sing and dance.
As an Our Time Has Come Scholar, I had invaluable conversations with many alumni and special guests who knew what I needed to do to succeed in this business.—Blake Brewer ’21
No doubt Brewer’s receipt of an Our Time Has Come Scholarship—awarded to only 20% of applicants nationwide—was transformative. “I wanted to take some pressure off my parents, who were putting two kids through college,” he says, noting that the scholarship provides Black and Latino students with financial aid, leadership training and networking opportunities. “As an Our Time Has Come Scholar, I had invaluable conversations with many alumni and special guests who knew what I needed to do to succeed in this business. There’s no telling how my life would have gone if I hadn’t won that scholarship.”
Associate Professor Katherine McGerr, who first directed Brewer as a sophomore in The Wild Party, insists there’s 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 his usual range. He applied his technique, McGerr remembers, and then “arrived at a result that suited his strengths and revealed new facets of the character.”
The drama department’s affiliation with Syracuse Stage allowed me to perform alongside professionals and work toward my union membership.—Blake Brewer ’21
These facets were on display in the summer of 2020, when Brewer organized a live video fundraiser for Amazing Grace Conservatory, a Black-owned performing arts center that he used to frequent 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. “It really meant a lot to me to know that I had helped fill a need, that some kid was going to get a scholarship and be afforded the same opportunities I once had,” he says with a trace of emotion.
Observes Assistant Professor Rufus Bonds Jr., who 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
Brewer credits Syracuse for showing him how to succeed in a post-COVID world. His involvement last fall with Syracuse Stage’s Home for the Holidays—a video-on-demand program of songs and stories—underscored the importance of being flexible and nimble amid uncertainty. “The show had some great guests in it and was a lot of fun,” he says. “The experience taught me to be more intentional with my relationships, my gifts and my time, because tomorrow is promised to no one.”
Bringing this show to families across the country is priceless. Touring with The Elf on the Shelf makes me want to do a Broadway show or another national tour.—Blake Brewer ’21
Intentionality has underscored almost everything Brewer has done since graduation—from appearing in The REV Theater Company’s production of 42nd Street in nearby Auburn to currently touring with The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Musical. Produced by Mills Entertainment (a division of Creative Artists Agency), the latter is a new production inspired by the eponymous box set. “Bringing this show to families across the country is priceless,” says Brewer of the inaugural 33-city tour, which wraps Dec. 26. “Touring with The Elf on the Shelf makes me want to do a Broadway show or another national tour.”
Brewer also has benefited from the University’s vast network of industry professionals. His appearance last spring in VPA’s Lewis Hecker New York City Drama Showcase caught the attention of talent agents, producers and casting directors, including those from the Realm Agency and Rothman/Andrés Entertainment. “Because the showcase was broadcast online, more people, including my future agent and manager, saw what I could do,” says Brewer, who now lives in Harlem. “There’s been an abundance of opportunity that makes me optimistic.” And sometimes surprised. No sooner had he made callbacks for the REV’s production of Footloose than he was offered a spot in 42nd Street.
With nine regional theater productions and a handful of screen credits to his name—including Chokora, winner of the CineStory Screenwriting Award, and the official music video for “That’s Wassup,” by West Coast rapper Demrick—Brewer is a study in versatility. “I couldn’t do it without God, hard work and discipline,” he admits.
Brewer also is a quick study. As a “swing” in The Elf on the Shelf, responsible for multiple chorus and dancing roles, he doesn’t have the luxury of muscle memory or a long rehearsal process. “The technique I learned at Syracuse is what sustains me. It’s also what will take me to the next level of my career.”
This story was updated on December 21, 2021.