Ian Cole Ingram Blazes Atlanta Theatre Scene in LGBTQ Rock Musical ‘RENT'
There's a moment in the second act of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical "RENT" when the character Tom Collins stands downstage clutching the jacket of his recently deceased lover, Angel, flanked only by a spotlight, as he begins crooning the soul-stirring "I'll Cover You Reprise"—a song requiring vulnerability, fearlessness, and vocal chops—all of which, Ian Cole Ingram, 33, delivers in the Pinch' N' Ouch Theatre production of "RENT," now running at Atlanta's 7 Stages Theatre through January 23.
In April, it will be 27 years since "RENT," a rock musical loosely based on Puccini's 1896 opera La Bohème—reimagined by Larson to tell the story of a group of poor artists struggling to survive in New York's East Village at the height of the HIV epidemic—opened to critical acclaim on Broadway. Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm three months before "RENT" opened on Broadway and the day before the first Off-Broadway preview at New York Theatre Workshop.
While "RENT" is a celebration of life, there is a heaviness surrounding it that Ingram channels.
"I could play Collins for the rest of my life, and that would be the only role I would need," he says. "["I'll Cover You"] is a song of hope as well as sorrow. It's multifaceted. It's human," Ingram says.
"For me, it's visceral. It shoots up through me every single time I do it. I don't care if it's karaoke—with that song—you're gonna get all of it every single time. It feels like church, he adds.
Since early 2022, the Lithonia native has been on a journey with the musical, having performed the role of Tom Collins in a one-night-only performance at Variety Playhouse in May and during a production at Carrollton Repertory Theatre Company in Carrollton, GA, in September. Ingram is particularly excited about the current Atlanta run.
"This one is really cool because I get to sit in the character. I get to be the character for a month and really get to know him," he says.
Ingram tells 2.0 that he was cast in the ensemble in the Carrollton production. But after the actor playing Tom Collins tested positive for COVID, he was asked to step in at the last minute, setting him on a path that would change his life forever artistically.
"Out of nowhere, I was doing this lead role that I wasn't necessarily prepared to do," he says.
A talented vocalist, Ingram was suddenly thrust into musical theatre acting and terminology.
"Lines, blocking—things I'd never heard of before," he said through laughter.
It wouldn't be until his performance in "tick, tick.., Boom!," another Larson musical produced by Pinch' N' Ouch Theatre in 2022, that Ingram, to the shock of his castmates, disclosed that he was making his theatre debut.
"I've been singing for most of my life, but I had never stepped on stage," he says. "2022 was my first year doing theatre—period."
Cole’s performance in “RENT” was described as a “standout” in a review by ARTS ATL critic Luke Evans, who noted that “sadly, many of the main cast members lack the vocal stamina to keep up with Larson’s admittedly demanding score.”
Evans’ assessment is spot-on. Living Out Loud 2.0 attended the January 14 evening performance. Except for Ingram, Vallea E. Woodbury (Joanne), Layne MacPherson (Mark), and a hard-working ensemble, the Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre production of “RENT” failed to honor Larson’s legacy properly. We’re not privy to Pinch ‘N’Ouch Theatre's operating budget, but if the company cannot afford to hire musicians, they should probably reconsider producing musicals. I can almost guarantee that Larson never intended his show to be performed to a track that could stop numerous times throughout the show as it did during the January 14 performance. The cast and theatre patrons deserved better from Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre.
No Day But Today
Ingram has been out since age 15. As an openly gay man, he recalls the impact of the queer representation provided on stage and screen by Jessie L. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the actors who originated the roles of Tom Collins and Angel Dumott Schunard in the original Broadway company and the 2005 film adaptation of "RENT."
"Seeing Jesse L. Martin do that role, even though he doesn't live his life as a queer man—just seeing somebody in that role—dancing, singing, kissing, loving, [showing] affection—things like that—you don't get to see," Ingram says. "You'll get something more sexualized before you'll get somebody just showing intimacy as a Black gay man."
Now, Ingram is providing queer representation similar to Martin and Heredia for Atlanta audiences, including his parents, who will see him kiss another man on or off stage for the first time.
"I've found that embracing who you are and where you're supposed to be at the time you're supposed to be there is not a mistake," he says. "And so, I will take every opportunity to represent by being myself and leading by example for others who need to see it," Ingram adds.
"Here's to awareness and action against all of the ills that are represented in this play that can be alleviated through unity. And here's to a new era in theatre," said Heredia in his 1996 Tony Awards acceptance speech for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as Angel.
Like "HAIR," its controversial '60s musical predecessor, "RENT," revolutionized and reinvigorated American musical theatre when many of its most brilliant minds were dying. HIV is a matter of life or death for Ingrams and many other characters, both queer and straight, who are living with HIV in "RENT," particularly before the arrival of life-saving antiretroviral therapy (HAART). During a "life support meeting," characters living with HIV, based upon real people and situations from Larson's life, hauntingly ask:
"Will I lose my dignity?"
"Will someone care?"
"Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?"
In the Atlanta production, the names of these characters change to honor the memory of actual friends of the company who have died from HIV-related complications. Because of scientific advancements and relentless activism, and political pressure from the LGBTQ+ community, HIV is no longer a death sentence but a chronic manageable condition.
However, despite progress, Ingram says the prevalence of stigma proves there is still work to be done.
"The only thing that's changed is the medicine and our access to it," Ingram says. "Several of the straight characters have HIV in this production. And that's still a conversation that needs to happen today because it's still seen in many different circles as just a gay disease, and that is not the case."
"RENT" may be a musical that defined the '90s, but its message of hope, love, community, and perseverance amid an epidemic is still relevant.
"RENT" serves as a reminder to keep the conversation going because it's a comma; it's not a period," Ingram says. "It hasn't stopped yet."