“These are redefining roles for us,” says Joshua Henry about himself and Brandon Victor Dixon, appearing together on Broadway for the first time. Until now, it seems the two actors had been chasing each other.
Dixon originated the role of Haywood Patterson in The Scottsboro Boys Off-Broadway in 2010. Henry played the role on Broadway later that year. They were both in Cotton Club Parade at New York City Centers Encores!—Dixon in 2011 and Henry in the 2012 return engagement. They worked together in a workshop of Motown, and Dixon went on to originate the role of Berry Gordy on Broadway, but they haven't had a chance to collaborate until now, starring in Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Dixon and Henry play Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, the writing duo of the original Shuffle Along—the groundbreaking hit Broadway show written and performed in 1921 entirely by African Americans. Casting directors clearly have their eye on Dixon and Henry, though Dixon says they often cast “whoever’s available.” Now, they have the chance to show off their individual merits and personas playing side-by-side as collaborators and best friends, Blake and Sissle.
“Eubie is the musician, he’s the composer, but Noble, [as the lyricist], his focus is the words and the storytelling,” explains Dixon. "[Eubie] is not about the flair. He’s not about the spotlight which Noble craves…that grounding sense of true artistry is what made Noble latch on to Eubie.”
“Eubie has ambition and Eubie has goals, but Eubie's love is the music and the relationship with the music and the relationship with his partner who makes the music," says Dixon. Likewise, the men are finding their own bond as they prepare to open their Shuffle Along on April 28. "[There is a] parallel in the relationship [between] Eubie and Noble and for Joshua and I in that there is an age difference, but circumstantially sometimes things get flipped in a caretaker role," Dixon says. Dixon is a year-and-a-half older than Henry, just as Blake was slightly older than Sissle. But, Henry is married, so Dixon sees him as more grounded. Dixon, recently single, says that he can brood, and Henry will check in on him. "I think of Noble as an organizer. Noble created structure. He organized the first Actors' Equity for African Americans.”
Dixon loves a challenge and often finds his work and his life intersect. “When I’ve done certain shows, they’ve come to me at a time when I’ve been going through something that is connected to the role and the story and doing the show helps me evolve in some way,” says Dixon, and Shuffle Along is no exception. “There must be something that George [C. Wolfe, our director] saw in me really deep inside to put me in this role that I’m so grateful for,” says Henry, regarding his tie to the work. “Joshua and Noble are aligning.”
When Henry talks about Sissle and Blake, he, too, finds parallels in his work with Dixon. "I think for Noble, music is the foundation of the relationship and there's an admiration that he has for Eubie because he's such an incredible musician," says Henry. “I look up to Brandon onstage.”
This show allows them to show off their differences as performers, but they have also discovered a likeness in their process. "We both have the right instincts and the same kind of theatrical intelligence," Dixon says.
They've also bonded over their similar backgrounds (both their parents are from Jamaica) and taste in music (old-school R&B and hip-hop). Not to mention, Dixon reminds Henry of his brother, George. “He’s very gung-ho. He’s a very logical person. Brandon and George have the same type of brain….” Henry laughs. "That's rare in a show, to find someone that you could have grown up in childhood together, in the same neighborhood. It feels good. Familiarity adds a lot onstage."
They describe the whole cast, which also includes Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald and Billy Porter, as familial and a thriving artist's environment. But because Dixon and Henry are close in age and younger than the other leads, they have a "shared giddy joy," Dixon says, about working with their idols. "I always wanted to be a Broadway star. That's actually what I wanted to be when I was a kid. I wanted to be the 19-year-old sensation on Broadway. It took a little bit longer than that," says Dixon. "And the first musical I ever saw was Ragtime. Audra and Stokes. And so to be walking through our neighborhood now—it's our neighborhood now. We've been here enough. We've done enough. It's ours and to be walking up to a theatre with our names above the marquee next to their names…" Dixon trails off, tearing up, and Henry pats him in understanding.
For two actors constantly looking to challenge themselves and explore time periods and styles, in Shuffle Along they've found the "pinnacle of the pinnacle," says Henry—quoting the show.
"T.D. Jakes has a great quote about people coming into your life, and I think it's the same about shows. Things come into your life like scaffolding and you climb up onto that scaffolding and you need that scaffolding for a while, but at some point, you're done with that level and then you're trying to climb higher, so you don't need that same art in 2009 or 2012. You want to move forward and higher and do something that you haven't experienced before,” says Henry. “These roles [are] things we haven’t done before.”
Linda Buchwald is a New York-based arts journalist focusing on theatre and television. Follow her on Twitter @PataphysicalSci.