DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The stars of "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations," the Broadway musical now playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center, have a tradition as they take that show on the road. They visit places that have a connection to Black history in the cities where they perform.
ABC11 caught up with them as they toured "Confronting Change," the Black History Month exhibit that documents the segregation policies enforced at Durham's Carolina Theatre and the pushback that ultimately opened the theatre to everyone, regardless of race.
The men who portray the legendary "classic five" lineup of the Temptations are keenly aware of the group's heyday in the 1960s, and how Motown's popularity encouraged cooperation between the races that fueled the growth of diverse communities like Durham.
"We actually previewed the show here. So this was our very first audience, very first crowd," said Harrell Holmes, Jr., who portrays Melvin Franklin in the musical. "So Durham holds a special place in the heart for me because it was my very first theater experience."
All five performers spent time examining photos and icons from less tolerant days in Durham, including a reproduction of the box office in the theater's "colored section."
"That railing, that was there? It can get emotional, to see where we've come," said Elijah Ahmad Lewis, the actor who plays David Ruffin in the show. "We've come far. Not too far but definitely further from where we started. And to be able to get on an American stage and tell this black story, it's very honoring."
The exhibit also includes a stark photo of the 97 steps Black patrons of the theatre had to climb outside the building to enter the third balcony and purchase tickets. That's where they had to watch the show, prohibited from joining the white audience seated in the more comfortable, easily accessible orchestra section downstairs. Those restrictions were common and enforced across the South, including Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas where the original Temptations grew up before gaining fame in Detroit as recording artists on the Motown subsidiary label Gordy Records.
"I too, am from the South," said Jalen Harris, the actor who portrays Eddie Kendricks. "I'm from Memphis, Tennessee, and I'm hearing stories from my own family. Their experience, and being in Memphis during the murder of Dr. King and how that has affected the Black culture."
E. Clayton Cornelius plays Paul Williams, a member of the group whose early death by suicide raised awareness of pressures that plagued many African Americans during the struggle for civil rights.
"I have to hone in on that and know that the stories that my mother and father and my family tell me about, how they got through, helped inform me to play this role," Cornelius said.
Kendricks, Franklin, Ruffn, and his replacement as Temptations lead singer, Dennis Edwards, are also dead now. The stars of the show told ABC11 they are inspired by the sole surviving original member of the Temptations, Otis Williams, who continues to tour with a modern incarnation of the group.
Michael Andreaus, who plays Williams in the musical, said, "Otis always talks about how he still feels like a country boy with hot water cornbread in his hand and overalls hanging off, walking the streets of Texarkana. And now, having a musical about his life, he never would have imagined that he would have made it to this point."
You can see the five actors interpret the Temptations story in "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations," on stage at the DPAC through Sunday.