AJ Shively recalled nearly failing his college tap class he was required to take for his acting degree at University of Michigan. Now, the Tony contending star taps, Irish steps, crumps and more 8 times a week in the 10-time nominated hit Paradise Square. “I would not have auditioned for the role of Owen as it is now. I would have thought, ‘Oh, that’s just not for me,’ but I’m really proud of myself for the like the work I put in and the results,” AJ told HollywoodLife in an EXCLUSIVE interview as part of our Tony Contenders series.
Paradise Square follows the conflict between Irish Americans and Black Americans in the midst of the Civil War in New York City, leading up to the first known insurrection in the US — the New York Draft Riots of 1863. In the production, AJ plays the role of Owen Duignan, a recent immigrant to the New York City, by way of Ireland, who is trying to avoid being drafted.
“It’s a very, very difficult thing for a contemporary audience to talk about, specifically the Irish people, because this has been known as ‘the moment the Irish turned white,’ the Draft Riots of 1863,” AJ explained. “You know, they talked funny, they had a weird Eastern religion, they had strange culture, they were not considered part of polite society, they were considered savages…the reaction to the Irish people coming was more like contemporary reactions to say, the wave of Afghan refugees that came in the last decade, the the wave of Somalian refugees that have come in the past decade.”
Paradise Square raises a lot of stimulating thoughts about the African American experience compared to the immigrant experience, as well as the fact that America has yet to find a space where people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, heritages and beyond can live peacefully.
As mentioned, AJ was challenged to dance, as well as master the traditional Irish folk way of singing called Sean-nós. “I took lessons at the Irish Art Center here in New York and was exposed to this whole community of traditional Irish folk singers, it made it so much easier,” he recalled. “As for the accent, it kind of happens by itself. It’s just about letting go of technique. You forget about vowel sounds, you forget about it all and you just feel the rhythm.”
He continued, slipping into a brogue accent, “The Irish accent, to me, what I think about is like dancing, it’s all kind of flat because the words they choose are so beautiful, and you don’t want to take away from the poetry they’re creating. It all resonates in the heart and just like in Ireland, the breeze never stops, the air never stops, it’s wind off the water.”
Academy Award winner and Tony nominee Ariana DeBose will host The 75th Annual Tony Awards, airing live coast-to-coast, on Sunday, June 12th (8:00-11:00 PM, LIVE ET/5:00-8:00 PM, LIVE PT) on the CBS Television Network, and streaming live and on demand on Paramount+. Julianne Hough and Darren Criss will host “The Tony Awards: Act One,” one hour of exclusive content streaming live, only on Paramount+ (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/4:00-5:00 PM, PT.)