Award-winning actor Mikell Sapp knows exactly why he was chosen to play the lead in the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" at Russell County High School in Seale, Ala.
"I was pretty awesome. I was the first Black Charlie Brown and nobody could tell me nothing," Sapp said before quickly copping to some nerves. "It being a musical, it made my butt cheeks clench a little. I could hold a note but I consider myself a background singer."
Confident, talented and clear about all of it, Sapp is a man full of stories. Born in Phenix City, Ala., to a mother who worked as an on-air radio personality and a father who labored in a textile mill, Sapp was the family's prankster and joker since childhood. That passion to entertain and engage, which he polished formally at Alabama State University, has taken him to stages and places he could not have imagined.
Yet here he is, having a go at it in Minnesota.
Sapp chronicles his journey from the Deep South to Up North in "Charlie (Brown) Black," an autobiographical solo work that previews Friday at Minneapolis' Pillsbury House Theatre, which is celebrating its 30th-anniversary season this year.
That he is doing such a show is a surprise, even for him.
"People always tell me, when I tell them stories, 'Oh, you gotta write that down,' " Sapp said. "And I'm always like, 'Oh, it's just Mikell being Mikell.' "
Director Talvin Wilks, who dramaturged "For Colored Girls" on Broadway and is working on three other projects in the Big Apple, flew back to Minnesota to midwife Sapp's piece.
"He's exploring what it is to be an artist and the notion of the welcome table," said Wilks. "Mikell's using his life story to interrogate these ideas with a lot of humor and truth. My job has been to find a container that can hold this story that we've been developing together."
Sapp is best known for lyrical, witty acting and chameleon-like transformations. In "Broke-ology" at Pillsbury, he played a son of a father with terminal illness. In "Pussy Valley" at Mixed Blood Theatre, he played a street tough named Lil' Murder. He put his versatility on display in the ensemble of "The Ballad of Emmett Till" at Penumbra. He also played a wonder-filled boy experiencing snow for the first time in "The Snowy Day" at Children's Theatre Company.
Actors are famous for putting on characters almost like masks. With "Charlie Black," Sapp is putting down the mask to put his own life story out onstage.
"It's a brave thing and vulnerable thing," said Wilks. "He talks about being the nice guy and women may not necessarily like the nice guy. That's a story that's been told. But what about the story of a young Black man who feels pressured to be a bad boy, or even to try it, and therein lies the joke."
While the idea for the show came from many friends, Sapp heard it deeply from Ellen Fenster, who had directed him in shows at Pillsbury House's Breaking Ice program, which uses theater to address serious issues such as workplace equity for audiences.
"We were in a van driving late at night to some place after a performance and Mikell was telling us some story about his prom date or college girlfriend," Fenster recalled. "It was hitting all the right notes of tragedy and comedy at the same time. I remember thinking, 'This is distilled dramatic gold.' "
Fenster added that Sapp "has unique powers of observation. Onstage he's just hilarious. I love watching him morph into all these types of characters. He's a major artist who I think would be great also on TV."
It's all a long way from Alabama for Sapp, who in 2015 won the emerging artist Ivey Award, which honored Twin Cities theater excellence.
When he was close to graduating from Alabama State, Sapp heard about the Kennedy Center's College Theatre Festival and tried out for a regional role. Faye Price, then co-producing artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre, was tapped to be a judge that year.
"Mikell was in a show with a lot of seriously talented young Black men — it was like a gold mine for me because I had a show to cast," Price said. She gave her card to all the actors in the show, asking them to follow up.
Sapp did, flying in for an audition of "Broke-ology," and got the role. That was in 2011, his professional debut, and he's been performing onstage ever since.
The Charlie Brown frame gives him an opportunity to share his life as an everyman, Sapp said, rekindling a view of himself as an artist without limits.
"When you're in high school, you're able to dream without boundaries," Sapp said. "But once you get into the real world, you get slapped in the face. You're made to understand that you've got a lane in this business. You could be a great thug, a great gangster or slave. But what about Romeo? You could be one of the cousins that die."
While Sapp loves his high school memories, he knows all too well that there are many dramas, including in the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams, where the hero peaks early and battles his way downhill from there. That is not his journey.
"No, no, no," Sapp said determinedly. "This story ends differently, even if I have to create my own opportunities."
'Charlie (Brown) Black'
Who: Written and performed by Mikell Sapp. Directed by Talvin Wilks.
Where: Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.
When: 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. Sun. Ends June 12.
Tickets: Pay-what-you-wish above $5. 612-825-0459 or pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.
Protocol: Masks required.