Charismatic actor H. Adam Harris has the kind of life story that could be an inspirational film.
On stage, the affable, bear-sized performer with the James Earl Jones-like voice conveys a sense of soulfulness and real life. But in his day job as a teaching artist with Penumbra Theatre, the Guthrie, the Children’s Theatre and Ten Thousand Things, Harris is constantly juggling work, leaving little time for any social life.
Flashbacks would show his early childhood in a rough neighborhood in Detroit, where he disarmed challengers with his gift of gab — the same skill that has carried him thus far.
The heroes would include his father, Harold, a retired building inspector for the city of Detroit. Harris’ mother died when he was 6 after suffering from multiple sclerosis. His dad nurtured his son’s gifts and saw to it that the boy maintained his openness and sensitivity as well as a love of learning.
“He’s always had a large soul, and a moral authority that could change people,” said Harris’ high school drama teacher, Marilyn McCormick. “Anyone who encounters him feels his energy, his zest for life.”
After memorable performances in “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at Children’s Theatre, “The Ballad of Emmett Till” at Penumbra and “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Guthrie, Harris will play Baloo the bear and Father Wolf in director Greg Banks’ adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” opening Friday at CTC. The roles play to his strengths.
“Adam has a combination of dignity, huge emotional access and joy that makes him really special as a human being, not just as an actor,” said Children’s Theatre artistic director Peter Brosius, who twice directed Harris in “Grinch.”
“He is a huge talent onstage, of course, with a great sense of humor, a lot of tenderness, and ways into his character. But he’s also a leader, educator and moral force in the community who challenges us to be our best selves.”
Harris says he doesn’t know about all that.
“I’m just having fun,” he said. “Being onstage and inhabiting other characters, and teaching offstage so that people can have a shot at their dreams — these are the things that make me tick.”
Harris’ first idea of a career was in the courtroom, not the stage. He wanted to be a lawyer growing up “because of the way they were portrayed on TV,” he said.
Then in fifth grade his father took his unwilling son to an audition for Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, a children’s company founded in 1992 that has since toured Africa, Asia and Europe. Harris got a part, and was in the company from fifth through eighth grade. To this day, his father’s favorite performance by his son is as the Cowardly Lion in a Mosaic production of “The Wiz.”
“The lion didn’t come out until the second act, and that’s when the show started,” said his dad. “He sometimes wakes up feelings in me I never knew I had.”
Harris was fortunate to attend Cass Tech High School, where his teacher McCormick had instructed such acting stars as Cornelius Smith Jr. (“Scandal”) and Jamal Mallory-McCree (“Quantico”) as well as notable playwright Dominique Morisseau. She immediately recognized his talent and energy. She steered him to audition for the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theatre BFA program, run by the late Ken Washington.
“I didn’t know what to expect from Minnesota,” Harris said. “But I trusted her completely, and it has changed my life for the better.”
Since graduating from the U in 2011, Harris has played character roles such as Old Dog Max in “Grinch” and even a girl in “Emmett Till.” But he has also played the romantic lead, including the lover in Marcus Gardley’s “The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry,” produced at Pillsbury House last year.
“You get trained inside of classical programs for your character type, and mine would be kings — the people no one has to be in love with, just in fear of,” he said. “But it was nice to play the love interest. The thing that happens, if there’s typecasting, is that when folks compliment me, the next question is, ‘Are you going to move to New York?’ ”
And the answer?
“I have dreams, but they’re not predictable like that,” he said. “I would love to work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, because I love what they’re doing there. I see myself as a teaching artist, and I have to balance both. I think that’s where I can make a contribution while keeping a promise I made to Ken Washington to carve my own path.
“Ultimately, I want to do what’s best to help the most people. I owe it to all who have helped me get here.”