Youngstown actor celebrates being himself
AUSTINTOWN — James Major Burns has a lot to celebrate this year.
He soon will be getting married after his 2020 wedding was postponed because of COVID-19. He will celebrate turning 30 after his actual birthday celebration also was delayed by the pandemic. He is celebrating 10 years of being in the theater. And he will perform a one-hour show at the Pride in the Valley Festival July 31 in Warren’s Courthouse Square that he described as an autobiography of sorts.
Burns, the son of Samuel Burns and Carla Moore, grew up on the South Side of Youngstown and attended Sheridan Elementary School, which no longer exists. He was in the second graduating class of the Rayen Early College High School, from where he graduated in 2009.
“We were like the lab rats for the Youngstown School District,” Burns said of the high school that opened in 2004 — one year before he started.
He said only 31 students were in his class, and he still talks to most of them because they were a tight-knit group.
Burns falls in the middle of a group of six children — five boys and one girl. He also has two nieces and one nephew.
In high school, Burns earned three letters in track and two in basketball. Now, his favorite sport is tennis. He has been playing since 2007 and said he fell in love with tennis by watching the various tournaments — U.S. Open, French Open, Australian Open — on television, mostly in the middle of the night.
He used to be a manager at Raising Cain’s Chicken, but now he drives a transport van for Turning Point Counseling.
“I always loved to perform, and I especially liked singing, but I was bullied a lot in school and into early adulthood, so I stayed away from performing,” Burns said.
He joined his middle school choir, which he was in for about two years. He also joined the church choir at Faith Temple in Campbell, where his grandmother was the choir director. That stint lasted only about a year because his grandma “didn’t think I was taking it seriously.”
Burns said it’s not surprising he ended up on stage because he was surrounded by music growing up, and his talent was encouraged.
“My mom would put music on every morning to get me out of bed,” he said.
His first musical was “Hairspray,” a show by Top Hat Productions in Struthers in 2010.
“I took a dance class at Youngstown State University, and I met a girl there and she brought me to tryouts. I auditioned with ‘Song for Mama’ by Boyz 2 Men,” Burns recalled. “The casting agents thought I was a professional actor because I was so focused and didn’t talk to anyone. They didn’t know I was just scared to death.”
Although he was hoping to land the major role of Seaweed, he was cast as the lesser known Gilbert and had only four lines. But he also got to sing as part of the ensemble cast, which got him “hooked” on performing.
He landed the role of Seaweed in subsequent performances of “Hairspray” at the Youngstown Playhouse in 2017 and in Akron in 2011 and 2019.
However, it was his role as Donkey in “Shrek: The Musical” at the La Comedia Dinner Theatre in Springboro, Ohio, in 2019 when his career really started to take off.
“It was my first away-from-home gig, and I was gone for two-and-half-months,” Burns said.
In a twist of irony, the guy he beat out for the role in Springboro was the one who bested Burns for the role in a New York City production five years earlier.
He said playing Donkey was one of the greatest experiences of his life.
“It was 72 performances, and I learned so much and grew so much as a performer,” Burns said.
In his 10-year career, he has performed in 27 plays, including 25 musicals because music is still his passion.
“I had always wanted to sing and dance, but I had terrible stage fright, so I made up for lost time by performing as much as possible in my 20s. I would do it (perform) for free, but it’s nice to get paid for it,” he said.
This month marks Burns’ 10-year anniversary in local theater.
“Ten years means so much to me. I would not be where I am without the support of my friends and theater peers,” Burns said. “I am living the life I have always wanted. So many dreams have come true.”
In 2013, at the age of 22, Burns decided to “come out,” announcing his homosexuality because he said he just wanted to be himself.
Burns said although his friends and some family members already were aware, it wasn’t until he told his father he was gay that he considered it official.
“I am thankful that my family was so accepting. I have a large extended family, and I spent my life thinking they would kick me to the curb when they found out,” Burns said. “It was a relief to finally be able to stop hiding who I was.”
Burns is now engaged to his longtime partner, Trevail Maurice Smith, whom he met during a production of “Cats” at the Youngstown Playhouse. Smith will direct the Youngstown Playhouse production of “The Color Purple” at Powers Auditorium in the fall.
Burns said he will perform some original songs during his upcoming performance at the Warren Pride Festival, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. July 31.
“I did a lot of song writing during COVID. I can’t wait to share my love with everyone,” Burns said. “I feel like this is my first opportunity to fully tell my story — who I am and how I got here. My music is my feelings, and I am all about self love. I want to be who I am, and I don’t live by society’s rules anymore.”
He said his motto, which he has tattooed on his chest, is “Be who you want to be, not what others want to see.”