FSCJ Artist Series Brings the 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT to Jacksonville

(L to R) Cody Jenkins, Juan Luis Espinal, Coleman Cummings in the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour, Photo by Amy Boyle

Interview with RENT cast member Cody Jenkins

It has been over 10,518,984 minutes since RENT first measured the value of friendship, the weight of artistic integrity, and the struggle to keep them intact while living and loving fiercely among the rising tides of addiction and the AIDS epidemic.

The 20th anniversary tour of the groundbreaking musical by the late Jonathan Larson celebrates the friendship of seven young artists struggling to pursue their dreams without selling out. The tour stops in Jacksonville January 14-19th at the Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater (www.artistseriesjax.com).

Ground breaking, inspiring, hopeful, celebratory – all are descriptors used to measure the impact of this stage phenomenon. “Unity. Togetherness. This show has a way of doing that to people and bringing them together. It’s really powerful,” says cast member Cody Jenkins. “At least for us, the cast, working on the show and being so close to the message that we get to tell every day, it’s really brought us all close. Overall, out of all the stories and themes, it’s really about accepting and loving everyone and having everybody come together.”

Jenkins, in his “dream role” as Mark Cohen, connects to the archetypal observer and hopeful young filmmaker who trains his camera on the world around him. “To be any of the voices that are in this story is a big one, just because this story is very impactful, as we know,” he says. “But to be the voice moving the story along throughout the show is really remarkable. I’ve loved the show for a long time, and I’d always dreamt about playing this role and not knowing if I would ever do it, and, if I did, when and where it would be. I have to pinch myself every now and then to remind myself how great it is.”

It’s the second year for Jenkins as part of the touring cast, although his first in the role of Cohen. Last October, auditions were being held to fill replacement roles including the part of Roger, who was leaving the show. Jenkins auditioned and made it through a series of callbacks before he learned he’d been cast in the show.

FSCJ Artist Series Brings the 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT to Jacksonville, The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour RENT, Photo by Amy Boyle
The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour RENT, Photo by Amy Boyle

“I was very, very lucky that the replacement they were looking for was right for me. I booked half way through last year’s tour, and I started back with them last December as ensemble member Gordon, and I understudied Roger,” he says. ‘I did that for seven months and then about three months in, they were holding auditions again for a new cast, for this year’s tour. I wanted to stay with the show, if they were willing to have me, in whatever capacity they wanted or needed me to be. I wanted to keep telling this story.”

Initially, Jenkins hoped to understudy the role of Mark to help keep things fresh and have something new to learn alongside the new members of the cast. A week later, he received a phone call in his hotel room that he was being offered the lead role. “I didn’t believe it,” laughs Jenkins. “I thought she had the wrong number. It was truly really shocking. I guess the rest is history.”

Stepping into Mark’s shoes, Jenkins discovered parallels between their personalities that gave him a deeper understanding of his character’s motivations. “He’s very quirky, and he’s got such a passion for his creativity and wanting to do things his way. He’s still a young artist who isn’t certain of many things, but one thing he is certain of is that is doesn’t want to stay home where he’s been with his family. He wants to go struggle because he wants to get some life experience and try to be successful at what he loves to do. I think as any performer that is definitely in correlation to our lives, but it also [relates to] anybody who kind of wants to go out and take a shot, take a leap. As a kid, seeing this role and wanting to do it, I loved the relationship he had with Roger as his friend and how he fit into the story. Mark is not necessarily the outcast but if you’re looking at the story in terms of LGBTQ and of race and all those things that come into play, Mark is a straight, white male who he doesn’t have a diagnosis of AIDS, and he doesn’t have all of these different things that all of his friends and loved ones do. I relate to him in the basic sense, but it’s interesting to see how he maneuvers himself through the world and tries to help his friends through it. I didn’t have any of those drastic themes in my life growing up, but I really just latched onto his personality and his drive for what he does. He loves the life that he’s got, and I find that appealing.”

As an observer who likes to position himself on the outside looking in, Mark sees the struggle his friends are facing with AIDS, and the realization that he will be left behind. “That’s a tough thing to accept. It’s the one thing that I truly do love about him–is that he’s so giving to all the people around him, and yet he forgets to focus on himself a little. He spends so much time trying to fix everyone that he didn’t realize he also needed fixing when it all comes down to it. He’s blinded by his love for his friends, and he gets so wrapped up that he doesn’t really take the time to look inside of himself. When I was younger, I always wanted to be with my friends because until I established my solid group of friends, it was kind of rough. You know what you maybe want to do and where you want to go; sometimes it doesn’t really hit you until big stuff comes along.”

In the pantheon of Broadway shows, RENT remains at the top of the heap, setting the bar impossibly high as it captures the hearts of new generations. It explored themes that had never been addressed in such a way, and while the AIDS epidemic has quelled to a manageable disease, the messages of hope and love still resonate deeply. RENT speaks to the seasons of self-exploration, growth and change. For all of the darkness and sharp edges, it’s a celebration of love, friendship, and the triumphs of the human spirit. 

“Through its magic, it’s made itself a timeless piece. The one big reason the show still resonates and still moves people is how smart Jonathan was in writing it. He put the microscope on it, and then he just left it there to be whatever each person it needs it to be. It always about letting the audience come to us and [letting] them experience the show how they see it. Not a lot of shows have that power. The music is so good and so rich. It takes you through a full emotional journey, seeing the show but also being in the show. It’s a very humanistic story, and I think Jonathan had so much true life and experience put into the show, it’s hard for it to not reflect the same amount of love and energy.” 

About Liza Mitchell