Clay Aiken likes Durham’s flavor

Singer/actor done with reality TV, now starring in ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ play
May. 02, 2013 @ 09:59 PM

Clay Aiken in person is the Clay Aiken that America has seen on television – friendly, good-mannered, strong North Carolina accent. Aiken said he can place a person’s North Carolina hometown by his or her accents. Both sides of his family come from Triangle communities, and he lives in Durham.

It’s been a decade since Aiken became a household name on “American Idol,” and since then he has appeared on several television shows and in the Broadway production of “Spamalot.” Last year he was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice.” Aiken said he lived in Los Angeles for three years, but he’s not an L.A. person at all.

“I just needed to get out of it, and I wanted to be closer to family,” he said. His mom lives in Raleigh, where he grew up. His dad’s side of the family is in Johnston County, and the Aikens and the Claytons are from Bahama in northern Durham County and from Person County, he said.

“I still drive around town and think how lucky I am to live here,” Aiken said. “People would come to visit and say, ‘There are so many trees here.’ I thought that’s a stupid thing to say, but I’ve been around and we do have a lot of trees.”

Aiken said Durham and Raleigh residents are lucky to have Durham Mayor Bill Bell, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and before that, Raleigh mayors Charles Meeker and Tom Fetzer. They didn’t let Durham and Raleigh turn into Atlanta or Charlotte, Aiken said.

Aiken has a Durham address, is geographically in Chatham County and is closest to Cary. Between the choices of downtown Durham or downtown Raleigh, he chooses Durham. “Durham’s got a trendy, SoHo hip feel to it. Raleigh is very yuppie white bread. Durham has a flavor Raleigh doesn’t have,” Aiken said. “Durham has always had character, but not always the character you wanted it to have.”

He talked about the resurgence of downtown, with the Durham Performing Arts Center, American Tobacco Campus and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Aiken performed a Christmas concert at DPAC in December, his first time performing there.

DPAC owner Nederlander knows theater, he said, but Aiken’s heart is at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, where he’ll perform in North Carolina Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which opens Tuesday. The first show he ever saw – “Big River” – was at Memorial Auditorium, and the first professional show he was cast in was a NC Theatre show.

“DPAC’s incredible, but Memorial is the heart,” he said. As an audience member, DPAC is fancy and the seats don’t creak, he said, but as a performer, there’s nothing DPAC has backstage that Memorial Auditorium doesn’t.

Aiken was being interviewed while sitting in the same chair he will sit in as “Man in Chair” in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” during rehearsals at NCT’s conservatory space in North Raleigh. His character puts on a record of a musical, which is acted out nearby while “Man in Chair” narrates and comments.

Aiken stars alongside Raleigh native Beth Leavel, who won a Tony Award for her role as “The Chaperone.” Aiken said that some prior NCT performances were not what NCT was when he did shows in the 1990s. But now, “I haven’t seen in years the kind of talent this stage has,” he said.

Aiken said of television, the recording industry, film and theater, theater is “really the only one where the fantasy and reality match.” People on television are driven by fame and money, he said, while people who do theater do it because they love it.

“They’re happy all the time. People in TV show up and go home – they don’t talk to each other or go early,” he said. “Here, it’s interesting. People get along.” And they get to work early, Aiken said.

Aiken said he’s done with reality TV.

“I’m not a competitive person, even though all people know I’m from is competing,” he said, referring to “American Idol” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” Aiken did make friends on “Celebrity Apprentice,” he said, and talks regularly with fellow competitor Arsenio Hall.

Aiken said he’s never really been starstruck, with the exception of three people: Diane Sawyer, Tom Brokaw and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Sawyer and Brokaw because Aiken is a news junkie, and Harkin for the senator’s work in special education, which Aiken studied.

During rehearsal earlier this week, Aiken, in character, was a bit fussy when a knock at the door interrupted his musical listening. In person, between scenes, Aiken chatted amiably with a colleague, his old-school Triangle accent coming out strong.