By Tom Nondorf
18 Nov 2010
Joshua Henry has been getting rave reviews for his portrayal of real-life "Scottsboro Boy" Haywood Patterson, who sacrificed everything for the truth in a brutal 20th-century miscarriage of American justice. One of the last musicals by the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys, now at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, features newcomer Henry and a cast that includes veterans Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon and John Cullum, among nine others in the acclaimed ensemble. Susan Stroman directs and choreographs, and David Thompson wrote the fact-inspired libretto based on a real case. For the uninitiated: In 1931 Alabama, nine black teenagers were arrested and convicted of a crime they did not commit. Years of trials and personal suffering followed. In The Scottsboro Boys, the troupers take the cue from the writers and create broad caricatures inspired by a racist entertainment of the past — the minstrel show, by name — to draw us into a larger tragedy. Henry gets a show-stopping number with "Go Back Home," a moment that speaks deeply to him and allows him to connect to his character. "You know," he told me, "after going to the University of Miami to study acting and being up here in New York, I've been on my own away from my family for a long time, so singing that song, it's amazing — it's such an emotional love song from Mr. Kander." Moving from swing, ensemble and understudy work (as Benny) in Broadway's In the Heights to a brief but memorable military-hero role (in memorable briefs) in American Idiot to the obstinate moral voice of The Scottsboro Boys has marked Joshua Henry as a man to watch.
It is a little bit hectic, but it's everything I've wanted — because I love to do what I do — so I'm enjoying it very much. Every day I wake up and I just kind of catch myself because, to be able to tell this story that's so historically important and so significant in terms of musical theatre history, it's just fulfilling in every way.
|photo by Paul Kolnik|
This show is significant in the way it uses the minstrel show to tell a very painful and serious true-life tale. Were you familiar with the minstrel show form prior to your involvement in the show?
I did have to research it. I was familiar with the term "minstrel," which, immediately, when I heard about it — I was turned off. And it wasn't until reading the script of The Scottsboro Boys and realizing what an important story it is [and that it] hadn't been told very often that I decided I really, really wanted to do it. The way that [aspects of minstrel shows] are used in this piece is, I feel, so unique, and is such a perfect creative way to expose a lot of the things that were going on at the time of the Scottsboro Boys' trials. It really lets us into a lot of the injustices that were going on.
As far as my enthusiasm going into it, what initially attracted me after reading the script was how the story gave life to each of the boys individually — the Scottsboro Boys. I had never heard of the story. It was never in any history book that I had read growing up! And then, at the end of the show, you see it's very hopeful and kind of the beginning of something very important — the Civil Rights movement. So that's what, right there, said to me that I had to be a part of [this show]. It was just kind of icing on the cake that the minstrel form was used in such a creative way that I think is so just artistically fulfilling.
In the show, we learn that your character, Haywood Patterson, wrote a book. Did you seek that out and read it?
Yes. The book's called "The Scottsboro Boy" and it recounts all — everything — that went on from the time Haywood was pulled off the train, convicted and imprisoned, up to the time he tried to escape from prison. He documented it. It's a very vivid description of everything that he went through — fights, getting beaten many times a week in prison, just everything that was going on in his mind, the torture, him trying to maintain the fact that he was innocent while mentally unraveling. It was just an amazing story and really formed a lot of what I tried to do on stage.
What are the ways in which you feel most connected to Haywood?
I always say that he's my hero because he was so completely dedicated to the truth. He grew up in a religious household and that's something I did as well, and my parents always instilled in me the importance of the truth despite circumstance. "Go Back Home" [is a] moment where I really connect with Haywood. It's just — you think about longing. As Haywood, you think about him being ripped away from his family. Haywood talks about how he loves nature, he loves to be outside, just being outside on the trains and seeing the trees — and now he's trapped inside this cage for something he didn't do. It's such an emotional time and you see Haywood — who is such a tough guy — having this little moment of tenderness, which I feel is such an important and interesting moment. I love singing that song.
You have Colman Domingo among the great talents in your ensemble, playing various parts, investing them all with different energies, what is he like to work with?
You know what, I'll be honest with you, the first time I saw him was in Passing Strange, when I thought, "Who the hell is this guy? And how does he not have fifty Tonys right now?" I mean, he has his share of accolades, but working with him, he is one of the most creative people that I've ever met. He is so giving and he is always in the moment. As actors we try to be in the moment, but he is deeper in the moment than you can imagine. Then there's Colman the person, who is one of the most uplifting people that I have ever met. Being around him is like being around a beacon of light, and it's so inspiring that someone so talented can be so caring. You know, he's kind of our leader. Before the show we always get together and we circle up and someone will — usually it's Colman — say what an inspiration, what an opportunity and privilege it is to be here. I could go on about Colman forever. He's an amazing performer, and he's more amazing as a person. Colman Freakin' Domingo!
You're kind of a big guy in stature yet you're quite nimble on stage. Did you have a lot of experience with dance?
Well, yes, I had four years of dance training in college. I was fortunate to involved with In the Heights which really changed my view on dance. I just became very obsessed with anything that had to do with movement and telling a story through movement. I wanted to be a good, good dancer after that experience because I was surrounded by so many amazing dancers at that time. Also, being around Andy Blankenbuehler — he is the choreographer for In the Heights — made me meticulous with every single movement. I remember one time he said, "If there's something I'm giving you movement-wise that you can't connect to the story, we should talk about it because I shouldn't be giving it to you." And I just thought, "Wow, it is important to be able to tell a story through your movement." So that's why it was so exciting, after coming from that experience, to be able to work with Susan Stroman, I was so excited because, as far as movement goes, she's one of the best.
|photo by Paul Kolnik|