You could say entertainment is in his blood. Born and raised in New Jersey and Harlem, singer/arranger/actor/dancer/model/entrepreneur Elijah Ahmad Lewis has been performing in some capacity since he was 7 years old. With a music producer father, a mother who was an actress and an uncle who was the leader of a famous singing group, Lewis has been around music and entertainment all of his life. “The great thing was that my family let me discover if I wanted to be in it or not,” says Lewis. “I was a drummer first and then started singing, then dancing and acting came – it all came together in a sense.”
His father produced for some very famous people throughout his childhood so Lewis explains, “music was always played around me and in my home at all times. The Temptations music was embedded.” He says it was always on, whether in the house or sampled somewhere – “I was always surrounded by music, from classical to gospel to R&B, to rap, pop and Latin – I had a wide variety of music that I grew up with that was just embedded in my body.” In high school, he began doing musical roles like Gaston in “Beauty and The Beast” and quickly became someone the school program wanted to create shows around. Then came an opportunity to attend the Cicely Tyson High School, a performing arts school where he flourished and worked closely with Tyson herself. All the while, he was a recording artist who began producing music as a solo artist in 2009.
In 2017, “Ain’t Too Proud” began developing, simply called “the Detroit project”, and at the time Lewis was starring in the second national tour of “Motown The Musical” as Stevie Wonder. He was asked to come to “The Detroit Project” as a possible Eddie Kendricks, but Lewis had made a commitment to Motown founder Berry Gordy and felt he wanted to honor that so he stayed with the Motown show. Then in 2019, he was called to be the standby on Broadway for the roles of Otis Williams, David Ruffin, and Eddie Kendricks in “Ain’t Too Proud” which he joyfully did (shout out to the incredible actors working as understudies and swings on Broadway and stages all over the world!) right up until the pandemic shutdown. As things began to open up again, he was called to play Ruffin for the first national tour, which brings us to their current run at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles.
The role of David Ruffin was the first character Lewis learned and he tells us “I love the role. All my life I’ve been a performer and there are special, key people in music who have made a staple for things that are continued or copied or influenced. So David Ruffin is the all time frontman, lead singer for boy groups. Even though he’s not here with us, he continues to hold that. So all the other groups like Boys to Men, NSync and Day26 – all of these people follow the model of what The Temptations did. David Ruffin is the ultimate show performer and anyone who’s known me or seen me knows that I love to be the spontaneity or toss-up surprise when I perform. And that’s something that David did. He was very charismatic.”
Although the music was ingrained in him from an early age, Lewis dug deep into research on multiple fronts including what he calls “YouTube University”. He marvels at how fortunate we are to be able to pull up all of these old performances and interviews that are like mining gold for an actor. But he has also been lucky enough to get first hand stories and insight from the last surviving Temptation and creator of the group, Otis Williams, upon whose memoir the show is based. Lewis also talks about the stories he was told by Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder and other Motown artists he’s met. He eventually reached out to Ruffin’s son, David Ruffin Jr. and quickly developed a relationship. “Just to be able to talk to him about what he remembers about his Dad and the things he knows is pretty great. Berry Gordy said “the truth is”, which is quite honest and accurate if you think about it, because if you’re telling the truth, there can’t be anything better than that. So I gather all that information and doing my work as an actor, hoping that digesting that information and processing it and delivering it in places where it needs to be, that the audience will receive my truth.”
He explains that when playing a real person he’s never liked to imitate or impersonate – but rather to pay homage. “I hope that my truth can carry over to the audience, to where you can feel the essence of them and not be trying to be them.” One thing he does have to recreate is Ruffin’s signature drop to the floor in a half split multiple times throughout the show. That, along with the vigorous (Tony Award-winning) Sergio Trujillo choreography is pure athleticism on stage. “Any Broadway performer is an athlete” he says emphatically, “to do a show eight times a week is something in itself. To be able to communicate to the audience on the Friday show the same way we did on the Tuesday show. Ephraim Sykes, who originated this role, is a trained Ailey dancer – so just to be able to try to do it every night – I’m very happy and fortunate that I can.”
Ruffin had his trauma and demons, namely drug abuse, which eventually got him removed from the group, and while Lewis acknowledges this and the show doesn’t shy away from the truth of it, he says it’s important for him to remind people that he was human. “There’s an attachment to him with the drugs that is unfortunately publicized more than his incredible gift. I feel it is a responsibility to remind people that, you know, all those things happened in a time where there wasn’t anyone to go to, to help you with situations that he was dealing with. People forget that The Temptations became the height in the civil rights movement and everything that was happening – that unfortunately is mirroring and happening now – that they dealt with on their way up. They had to endure a lot just to be able to get on stage and to perform. They were ridiculed, things were thrown at them, they were shot at. And David dealt with things in his personal life with his Dad and different situations where he fell into some habits that he probably shouldn’t have. I just want to remind the audience that he’s a human, just like you and me, who had an incredible gift, and even though he had those things and he’s not here with us, his life was just as important as anyone else’s.”
The show has been on tour for almost a year now, something Lewis does not take for granted. “It’s quite amazing. We’re blessed to be able to do this again, after the pandemic, because none of us knew if this would come back. And this cast is amazing. It’s quite interesting to have a different cast from the Broadway cast – and for it to be just as amazing! Dominque Morisseau, who graciously and poetically wrote the script – all you have to do is sit and read it and you can feel and be performing it in your head. When you have great material to work off of, it’s quite easy to make it look good, especially when you have such amazing, talented people.”
Even more so than when it premiered, the telling of this story feels timely and needed. “The Temptations music has a lifetime that will never end,” explains Lewis, “but also, the important parts that we hit on in this show – that are happening now – I think what’s important about it is that people get to see it and be reawakened that this is still happening. This all happened in a time where there wasn’t social media and nothing was being televised. But now that it all is, we’re bringing it back to the forefront that this has been here for many, many years. And bring a little hope that people can see that it doesn’t have to be this way – that little bit of we’re more alike than we are different.”
It’s a show that is resonating with audiences across the nation and Lewis points out that it starts with the music. “This music is timeless and it’s something you trust – so when you have that validation and you sit down and now we give you all this other stuff – the more you’re trusting, you’re trusting the process, and you go along the journey with us.”
Lewis achieves that goal and more in an electrifying performance that highlights Ruffin’s immense talent while telling his story in a way that humanizes him and allows for compassion and deep gratitude for the gifts he gave. In 2018, I called the show “an evening of pure nostalgic revelry to be sure but it is sobering to remember that there were costs in making all of this joy.” Every single member of The Temptations suffered tragic loss and for Ruffin, he couldn’t conquer his trauma and died tragically of an overdose at the age of 50. Lewis, with his ferocious vocals, razor sharp dancing and searing vulnerability, creates a deeply layered embodiment of the man and indeed reminds us of just how brightly he blazed while he was here.
“Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations” plays through January 1, 2023 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets are currently on sale and start at $40, available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Offices (at the Ahmanson Theatre) at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.