The Alliance Theatre’s Jungle Book runs Feb. 10-March 4 at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center. Details, tickets HERE or at 404.733.5000.


MARKELLE GAY BEGAN ITCHING to act early on. He was 10 and playing Chip the teacup in a national tour of Beauty and the Beast at the Fox Theatre when he realized his life would be about what he calls “my art and other people’s art.”

Children’s theater is a new experience for Markelle Gay (left, with understudy Avery Sharpe). Gay doubles as Baloo the bear and the Monkey King. Photo: A’riel Tinter

He worked at filling that metaphorical cup with all he could glean from fellow performers and his own imagination.

Musical theater is his first love, but there are others. Gay, now 23, discovered non-musical drama and comedy while in boarding school at Walnut Hill School for the Arts near Boston. He has done a number of TV and film roles, including CBS’ “Kid Nation” (2007) and the 2006 feature Dirty Laundry. In commercials, he helped sell cars and burgers. He’s a dancer, a rapper, a beatbox artist and a Morehouse College sophomore majoring in theater and minoring in journalism.

Now he’s Baloo, the upbeat bear in The Jungle Book, a family-friendly piece with a script by Canadian playwright Tracey Power, based on the 1894 stories by Britain’s Rudyard Kipling. You may also recall the 1967 animated version from Disney, with songs (“The Bare Necessities”) by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, the team behind Mary Poppins. The Alliance Theatre’s Jungle Book script came without music, so Atlanta’s S. Renee Clark composed the score and music-directs.

Gay, who’s 6-feet-1, feels more than ready to inhabit Baloo’s oversized persona.

Costume renderings by designer Sydney Roberts. Baloo is second from the left in the top row. Photo: A’riel Tinter

“This is a new experience, performing for children’s theater,” he says. “When I finally got the role, after some callbacks … I can’t put it into words. It felt right. I’m also really excited because I get to play with my voice a bit.” He also plays the Monkey King.

“I think Baloo fits my acting personality,” Gay says. The bear’s main mission is to teach young Mowgli, the feral boy at the center of Kipling’s tale, the ways of the world. He does so with the help of Bagheera the black panther and Akela the old wolf, telling Mowgli, “We be of one blood, you and I.”

Caleb Baumann (left, with understudy CJ Cooper) is Mowgli. Photo: A’riel Tinter

Of course, there’s an antagonist, Shere Khan the tiger, who does not believe that Mowgli belongs. The story reflects Kipling’s own lonely childhood.

“I’m a chipper, cool kind of guy, especially when I’m working,” Gay says. “I can see myself as Baloo, who is very serious but teaches in a way that doesn’t bash you over the head. “

Director Rosemary Newcott specifically asked Gay to audition, eventually casting him. “Baloo has a kind spirit about him, and Markelle was able to tap into that,” she says, “and also demonstrate strong physical and vocal abilities.”

Says Gay: “I can’t wait to see what I learn from her.”

“I’ve been working since I was 10,” he says. “I had a teacher who told me it takes 20 years to master your craft. It’s a blessing to be 13 years in and still learning.”

Gay thinks about a Broadway future. He loves touring and wants to see the world from every stage he’s on. And, like most performers, he has a dream role: Audrey II, the carnivorous plant at the center of the musical Little Shop of Horrors. Although historically played by a puppet, more theater companies of late have been casting human actors in the role.

Gay also wants to give back and share with other artists what he’s learned so far:

“Take advantage of all the opportunities you get in this business.”

“Build connections.”

“Absorb all the knowledge you can.”

“Audition for everything. You never know who will see you and remember you.”

“Keep pursuing your craft. Always try to grow.”

“I was the youngest person in the room when I did Beauty and the Beast,” he says. “It’s not too early or too late to work. You never know where that next opportunity will come from.”