Actor Joshua Henry admits he didn't know much about the Scottsboro defendants before auditioning to play one of them in the musical "The Scottsboro Boys."
But the scenes he received to prepare for that audition were powerful. As for the "gorgeous" song excerpts from songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, Henry says, "I thought to myself, 'I'd like to be singing these songs eight times a week.'"
He did just that when "The Scottsboro Boys" was on Broadway in fall 2010, and he'll be singing them again when the show opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday. Henry, who received a 2011 Tony nomination for his performance, is back in the role of Haywood Patterson, the central figure in one of the country's most shameful legal injustices.
On March 25, 1931, a group of black teenagers bound for Memphis were pulled off a freight train in Alabama, then falsely accused, imprisoned and convicted for raping two white women. Their case, tried in the town of Scottsboro, was appealed again and again, and despite the lack of evidence, they were found guilty again and again.
It hardly mattered that their convictions were overturned — twice — by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that one of the two accusers recanted her testimony. Each youth spent at least six years in jail. The last surviving Scottsboro defendant, Clarence Norris, died in 1989, and it wasn't until last month that the nine men were officially pardoned by the governor of Alabama.
Kander, now 86, recalls how the case was always in the newspaper when he was a child, and it was among the most high-profile cases of the century. A marker in U.S. civil rights history, what was sometimes referred to as the "Alabama frame-up," led to national protests and demonstrations. But the trials, like the nine defendants, were too soon relegated to history.
Not anymore. With a score from the men who brought us such popular fare as "Chicago," "Cabaret" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," a book by Tony nominee David Thompson, and choreography and direction by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, "The Scottsboro Boys" has gone on to a long life in regional theater. It arrives in Los Angeles after successful productions in several cities, including San Francisco and San Diego.
Kander, who completed the score after Ebb's death in 2004, has combined gentle Southern melodies and upbeat tunes with lyrics that often recount lynchings and other forms of Dixie justice. The musical unfolds as a minstrel show, which cast member J.C. Montgomery calls "a racist way of doing theater to tell a racist story of injustice. But we flip it on its head: Blacks play whites, which makes it even more powerful."
Librettist Thompson drew on not only court transcripts, but also letters, media coverage and books, two of them written by Scottsboro defendants. Much of that material has been available to cast members, all African Americans except for "interlocutor" Hal Linden. Several of the actors speak of augmenting those documents with independent research as well.
Henry, for instance, says he did "a ton of research" after he got the part on Broadway. Crucial was the book "Scottsboro Boy" by defendant Patterson, who learned to read and write during his long prison sentence.
"His upbringing led him to be concrete in his resolve, and even after many years of hardship, he stuck to the truth," says the 28-year-old actor. "There was an opportunity for him to be released from all the charges, to go and live an easier life, but his name would be tainted, and he said, 'I can't do it.' He decided to tell the truth so that future generations could learn from it."
Montgomery, who portrays characters as varied as white lawyers and prison guards, expressed similar sentiments. "There is always injustice somewhere," says Montgomery. "As long as these kinds of things keep happening in the world — and they do keep happening — this story will be important."
Before each performance, the entire company gathers in the lobby in a circle, holds hands and remembers the original Scottsboro boys. "I've never done a show where the actors were so invested in telling the story," says Stroman, director of such musicals as "Contact" and "The Producers."
Henry, who plays the heartbreaking role of Patterson night after night, hadn't even planned to become an actor. Raised in Miami, he expected to become an accountant, like his mother, until his high school voice teacher saw what he could do starring as con man Harold Hill in "The Music Man." She gave him free voice lessons and encouraged him to audition for the University of Miami, where he studied musical theater.
The actor returns to the character of Haywood Patterson after performing in such Broadway shows as "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" and "Bring It On: The Musical." Currently featured on the Lifetime TV series "Army Wives," he will return to New York after "The Scottsboro Boys" to perform in a one-night concert of composer Jeanine Tesori's first musical, "Violet," at New York City Center.
Henry's Tony nomination was one of 12 that "The Scottsboro Boys" received for its 2010 Broadway run, an impressive number given that the show ran just 78 performances, including previews, and had closed by the time Tonys were awarded. But Stroman points out that the Broadway run and attendant Tony recognition introduced the show to regional theaters.
The Broadway run also introduced actor Henry and composer Kander, two theater professionals who can't say enough good things about one another. Henry still seems awed at knowing someone he studied in college, relating softly how Kander approached him the other day with tears in his eyes and hugged him.
Kander remembers that moment well. "When you create a character, and then somebody begins to embody that character and takes it even further, it's thrilling," says the composer. "I don't think I was hugging him as encouragement. I think I was hugging him out of gratitude."