The 37-year-old actor, best known for the TV series “ER” and the film “8 Mile,” is discovering that audiences aren’t silent while watching him in “Stick Fly,” Lydia R. Diamond’s complex drama about a black family.
“People are spirited when they see this play,” he says, laughing.
Both white and black audience members in the Cort Theatre are known to burst out with spontaneous advice for the actors or to otherwise clearly telegraph their reaction to dramatic situations. “I had to get used to that,” he says. “It’s not very typical for Broadway — at least the Broadway plays that I’ve seen.”
Phifer plays Flip LeVay, a successful plastic surgeon and ladies’ man who attended Exeter and Harvard. Sparks fly when he and his younger brother bring their respective girlfriends — one black, one white — to meet their parents at their lavish summer getaway on Martha’s Vineyard.
Phifer, whose acting career began when he won the lead in director Spike Lee’s “Clockers,” is not what you’d call a stage veteran. In fact, “Stick Fly” marks his professional stage debut. But Phifer is hardly intimidated.
“Just being there live in front of an audience has been a very exhilarating feeling,” he says. “It’s definitely a different machine but I’m having a lot of fun because there are new things I learn every night.”
Produced by musician Alicia Keys, the play offers the New York-raised Phifer a great way to get his theater feet wet. He’s close to his roots, can learn from the ensemble and doesn’t have to dance. “This was actually the perfect piece. It just had the right amount of energy, the right amount of intrigue, the right amount of edginess,” he says. “It didn’t feel like a typical Broadway play.”
That’s because Phifer, who has played his share of streetwise tough guys, gets to play an educated rich man whose secrets unspool slowly over the course of the performance. He says he likes the opportunity to move past race and explore humanity.
“There’s no question that I’m African-American. OK? I’m a black man. We’re not going to escape that. But I love being able to get past that and, as the play goes on, you’re just watching people,” he says. “That’s one of the main things that drew me towards this role and this play — it could be anyone.”
Phifer is the theater newbie in an accomplished cast that includes Emmy Award nominee Dule Hill (“Psych,” ”The West Wing”), Tracie Thoms (“Rent”), Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Lackawanna Blues”), Rosie Benton (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”) and Condola Rashad (“Ruined”).
So tight is the cast that they’ve come up with their own lyrics to the original music Keys has written for spots between the play’s scenes. The rest of the time, they warm up together, eat communally and go out for drinks as a group afterward.
“It’s always a pleasure when you get to work with people that you actually really like,” Phifer says. “We hang out when we’re at the theater. We sit in the hallways or sit on the steps and yap it up.”
He hopes the good feeling bleeds into the audience, which has been known to become so boisterous that lines get drowned out. (His advice if that happens: “You might have to see it twice.”) He wants the audience to be intrigued, provoked and later discuss all of it.
“When you leave the play, you feel good. You want to go out and have a drink. You want to talk about it. You want to get something to eat. You don’t want the night to be over. And I think that’s what the Broadway experience should be about,” he says. “Our play lends itself to that energy and that attitude.”
Director Kenny Leon has been hoping to help Phifer make his Broadway debut ever since the two were slated to work together on an ill-fated attempt a few years ago to mount a production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
“In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to work with Mekhi,” Leon says. “He has presence. He has charisma. He has everything that all great actors have, except he had never done a play before.”
When that time finally happened, Leon was impressed by how humble the young actor was when he walked into the rehearsal room. “I can’t believe how much he’s learned in such a short amount of time,” Leon says. “The ease in terms of the transition from film to stage — I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen like this. I couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s doing on that stage.”
Phifer was born in Harlem and raised by his mother, Rhoda, a choreographer and schoolteacher who always encouraged her son to be creative. After beating out hundreds for a spot in “Clockers” on a whim — he got his headshot at a Woolworths near the audition site — Phifer has had a varied career, one that has taken him from “Honey” with Jessica Alba and “Soul Food” with Vanessa Williams to “Dawn of the Dead,” music videos like Brandy and Monica’s “This Boy Is Mine” and the 2007 romantic comedy “This Christmas.”
“I do love being onstage. Even as a kid, I was (a) performer. Local talent shows, local this and that. When break dancing was out, I break danced. When rapping was the thing, I freestyled rap on the street and battled and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “I’m a student of the game. I’m never not learning.”
His TV appearances include “New York Undercover,” Fox’s “Lie to Me,” HBO’s “A Lesson Before Dying” and “The Tuskegee Airmen,” and the ABC television special “Brian’s Song.” He is particularly proud that he landed a part in the Starz series “Torchwood: Miracle Day” as a CIA agent after producers were unable to find a white actor. So hitting the stage for the first time is just a logical extension of a man wanting to learn.
“I’ve got to be quite honest: I caught the theater bug and I’m all about Broadway right now,” he says. “It can be scary but you have to have a certain strength and fortitude about yourself.”