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He’s a Winner, Baby! An Interview with Tituss Burgess

Jon Fleming Photography

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star on Mahogany, the importance of Pride, and bringing The Preacher’s Wife to Broadway.

For many a young black gay boy, Diana Ross in Mahogany is it. She is the be-all, end-all of everything good and fabulous in this world. As Tracy Chambers, she is the diva-goddess-queen to which we aspire. And like many a young gay black boy, when Tituss Burgess first saw Mahogany he was inordinately obsessed with Miss Ross.

Mahogany Winner

"I didn't really know what I was watching, I just knew that she was in it," Burgess says. "And I was transfixed."

Decades later, he got to be Mahogany--in a sense. The current season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sees diva-goddess-kween Titus Andromedon dealing with the aftermath of his ill-fated run of the cruise ship musical production of Mahogany, starring none other than Dionne Warwick, played by glistening human crown jewel Maya Rudolph.

If the Emmys have any sense they'll finally throw a trophy in Burgess's face, if only for his incredible account of possibly eating the Grammy Award winner and Whitney Houston cousin.

i ate dionne warwick

"Nice to meet you! I'm just gonna sit in this shade," Tituss Burgess greets me warmly and without missing a comedic beat on the first of several very hot days in Washington, D.C.. We move out of the sun, though the irony of two black kweens seeking shade is not lost on either of us. Burgess is in town to help unveil Marriott International's #LoveTravels Mosaic in D.C.'s Freedom Plaza to raise awareness and support for LGBTQ homeless youth ahead of Capital Pride.

The art installation features expressions of unconditional acceptance and love through paintings, photographs, drawings, and hand-written messages. For every original submission created on-site or tagged #LoveTravels and #MyPride on Twitter and Instagram, Marriott will donate to the True Colors Fund and Casa Ruby, in their efforts to end LGBTQ homelessness nationwide and in D.C., respectively.

With the one year anniversary of the Pulse tragedy and an administration dead set on turning back time and progress, Pride has taken on a more significant meaning. "It just goes to show you, we've got a lot of work to do to, and I hate this word, to normalize who we are," Burgess says. "Now more than ever, it's time to show the world who we are and what we're made of."


Tituss and the Casa Ruby Family | Credit: Jon Fleming Photography

Tituss Burgess joins the likes of Laverne Cox, Jazz Jennings, Ross Mathews and thousands of people from 96 countries who have contributed artwork since the #LoveTravels Mosaic launched in 2016. "Whenever there's an opportunity to speak about equality, to speak about inclusiveness I take it," he says, all the while aware that not everyone is willing to listen.

"I don't understand why people think celebrities aren't supposed to have a voice about the world that they live in. It's such a bizarre thing. I had somebody tweet me the other day that I should keep my political comments to myself and don't try to use that to influence or sway. But what better way to get truth out into the world than to use the platform that I was given? I think it's important."

"I mean, if celebrities can endorse orange juice," he adds with a laugh, "why can't we endorse equality?" Or if you're Burgess's co-star and the air we all breathe Jane Krakowski, you can do both.

Related | OUT100: Tituss Burgess

Following his breakout role as professional gaylebrity D'Fwann on 30 Rock, Burgess's star was born as the infinitely quotable and GIF-able Titus Andromedon on Netflix's The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The third season premiered last month and like many other loyal fans, I consumed it ravenously, talked about it with anyone who would listen, and I continue to reference it in my daily life.

titus lemonade kimmy schmidt

It's really a rather remarkable little show, crammed to the hilt with jokes while still managing to be poignant, its heart ever-present on its sleeve. And in a cast of seasoned scene-stealers, Burgess always stands out, his incredible flair for comedy tempering the less savory aspects of Titus's personality, his sensitivity as a performer imbuing the character with a depth that belies his insouciance. This season, Titus continued his journey of personal growth, which was nearly derailed by a Beyonce -inspired baseball bat to a car window.

First things first, no Queen Bey hasn't tried to reach out to him in the wake of his impeccable Lemonade homage--"She's trying to bring twins into the world, I think she has larger problems."

Second, the idea that a black man can walk around Harlem with a bat causing property damage and not get shot or arrested is perhaps the show's greatest concept to-date. And third, the Lemonade parody led the way for a serious development in Titus's relationship with his adorable guido boyfriend Mikey. In a rare act of selflessness, Titus sets the recently out Mikey free to experience being gay without the safety net of his first and only relationship.

stronger than beyonce

When Burgess first started acting he never envisioned he'd be a TV star, he just wanted to be on Broadway. "But then I felt there was a larger...calling for my life, if you will, and I just wanted to do great work."

Thankfully he answered the call, and not only is he doing some of the best work on television right now, but he's preparing a return to Broadway. Sadly he's not bringing a Mahogany musical to the stage, though he is currently working on another divine diva's cinematic classic.

"I bought the rights to The Preacher's Wife a year ago and we are in the early stages of development," he says, referring to the 1996 movie starring Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington. However, don't expect to hear Tituss belting out "I believe in [beat drops] MIRACLEEEEEEEES and LO-OOOOOVE's a MIRACLE!" anytime soon.

"I'm writing an original score and all new music, so it won't have anything from the movie. If all goes well, you won't miss it," he says, adding, "But it still has the essence of Whitney Houston."

Well, as all things should.

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