Dante Jones got the acting bug young.
The 26-year-old who will star in Shakespeare in Detroit’s “Hamlet” next weekend in New Center Park says a Wayne State University theater workshop in elementary school rocked his world as a child.
“Somebody gave us a piece of Shakespeare text and walked us through how to understand it,” the lifelong Detroiter says, chatting outside the Marygrove College building where Hamlet’s currently in rehearsals, “and how to unlock this other world that was so cool and beautiful.”
Jones shakes his head. “Even at that age, it was ambrosia.”
A subsequent performance by Detroit’s famed Mosaic Youth Theatre cemented things. He’d never seen kids his own age with such confidence and poise.
“I will never forget,” Jones said, “watching them kill it up there. That’s when I thought, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ ” Small wonder he ended up auditioning and performing with Mosaic for years.
Jones, who’s worked with Shakespeare in Detroit since 2014 and got his theater degree from Wayne State last year, will do his best to kill it July 14 — literally, for those who know the show — when he takes the stage as Denmark’s best-loved, tortured prince.
It’s a part, as Jones’ best friend Lisa Carielle Posey notes, that either makes or breaks an actor.
“It’s a role,” she adds, “where you really have to dig deep into yourself.”
Jones is ready to dig. He likes what British actor and director Kenneth Branagh says about the part: “You don’t play Hamlet. It plays you.”
In any case, Jones has real sympathy for the ambivalent prince, a young man struggling to contain his powerfully conflicting passions.
“Hamlet is an everyman,” Jones says, “but he can be very teenaged and angst-filled. He’s kind of like the Goth kid with the dark makeup.”
But look at it from Hamlet’s point of view: The poor fellow’s father has just been murdered, “and within two months,” Jones says, “his mother remarries his uncle and is being all lovey-dovey.”
As Hamlet sees it, everyone in his life is false.
“No one’s genuine,” Jones says, “and it’s this disingenuousness that sends him into a ‘choler,’ as the text says.”
Like any good actor, Jones brings his own life experiences to his construction of the role.
He recalls his own struggles with uncertainty and depression as a teen, “but something came along in Dante’s life and pulled him out of that funk. I don’t think Hamlet has anything like that,” he says.
It’s this sort of insight that delights Dean Gabourie, the Stratford Festival veteran who’s directing “Hamlet.”
“Dante brings an intelligence and energy to the role,” he says. “He also brings a sort of street cred, which makes for a unique and perfect Detroit Hamlet.”
Sam White, founder and executive director of Shakespeare in Detroit, first cast Jones as Bottom, the comic stand-out in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She says it’s been a thrill watching him develop as an actor.
“Dante is great, and I’m delighted he’s finally getting a really substantial role,” White says, one she has no doubt he’ll play to the max.
“Dante is just bold. He’ll do anything!” she says with a laugh. “And that fearlessness is what’s going to make him a great Dane next weekend. We’re lucky to have him.”
Amusingly, Posey says Jones hates it when people call him a star.
“He doesn’t think he’s great,” she says. “He’s actually pretty humble and feels like his work is never finished.”
She, however, disagrees with his assessment.
“I don’t want to be one of those people who boasts about a friend,” Posey says, “but Dante is an outstanding actor. This ‘Hamlet’ is a show to go and see. He’s giving it his all.”
Shakespeare in Detroit
New Center Park
2998 W. Grand Blvd.
7 p.m. July 14; 8 p.m. July 15; 2:30 p.m. July 16
Free (bring your own folding chair)