Hailed as one of the most visionary and controversial musicals to grace the stages of Broadway and London, and nominated for 12 Tony Awards (including “Best Musical,” “Book of a Musical” and “Original Score”), The Scottsboro Boys is the true-life story of nine African American teenagers accused and put on trial in Memphis for a crime they did not commit. The infamous ordeal is one America’s most notorious episodes of injustice that lead to inaugurating a wave of social changes leading up to the modern Civil Rights Movement.
N’Digo recently spoke with veteran film, television and stage actor James Earl Jones II about his role as Haywood Patterson in the Chicago run of the captivating and controversial play. Jones II credits include Pokerhouse, Chicago Fire, Empire, Carlyle, Dreamgirls, October Sky, and a Jeff award-nominated turn in the award-winning Sondheim On Sondheim.
How’d you catch the acting bug and get started in the world of theater?
I always loved impersonations and telling jokes. Actually, for many years I idolized great comedians like Eddie Murphy and as I got older, Richard Pryor. I started acting, honestly, because I was acting up in school, and my mother encouraged me to audition for a play, as an outlet to hopefully reduce my hyperactivity. laughs I first started doing plays at a theater that is no longer around, called Upstage Downstage in Skokie, Illinois. I then did my first bigger play at the Regal Theater off of 79th St., called Makeda, the Queen of Sheba. That was directed by Peter Chapman, who helped run Chicago Theatre Company for many years.
Tell us about your first “big-time” gig that gave you butterflies?
The first big time gig that gave me butterflies was a Chicago sit down production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by famed NY director, James Lapine, at the Drury Lane Water Tower, which is now the Broadway Playhouse.
Who are three actors or performers that have greatly influenced you?
James Earl Jones, Eddie Murphy and Don Cheadle.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
I have Tourette’s Syndrome.. just as the older actor, James Earl Jones, deals with stuttering, I suffer from this unique neurological disease. However, performing has really helped me find ways of keeping it less noticeable.
Can you name one book that changed or really impacted your life?
“Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates writes in an intellectual landscape without the communism of Pan-Africanism that once figured in debate as alternatives to what white America seemed to offer. I’m not implying that the book gives you great feelings of hope, but it puts things, intellectually, in perspective about where we are in the world today.
What’s your dream role and why?
I’ve already had an opportunity to play three of them. Last spring, I did a world premiere of a play called Carlyle at the Goodman Theatre downtown. It was a fictional story of a young black Republican and how he came to be. It was a dream role, because it was catered to me and it educated and entertained audiences at the same time. Another dream role I covered and played was a one man show called Satchmo at the Waldorf at the Court Theater. It was about Louis Armstrong. Within the play, I was Louis, his manager, Joe Glazer and Miles Davis. It was a a 90 min roller coaster. And a final dream role is the one I’m playing now – Haywood Patterson – in Scottsboro Boys. Although I did not create the role, telling this man’s story of joy, pain, anger, ridicule – each and every show, is a beautiful struggle
Tell us more about the character of Haywood Patterson?
Where do I begin? I know that there is limited time and space to discuss who this man is so I’ll be brief. There is no one like him. I read his book, “Scottsboro Boy” and the pain this man endured, mentally, physically and emotionally is heartbreaking. At the same time, he was a perfect example of someone who was changed because of the system. He wanted a better life for himself. Always in search of opportunity to work and earn money to bring home. But when he got locked up, he changed. He was vilified. He sometimes was a danger to others. He became erratic and unstable at times. To think of what his life might’ve been like if he hadn’t been locked up…it’s saddening. Our young black men deal with the same issue every day. It’s heartbreaking. His journey – and the journey of the Scottsboro boys – created the real first surge of the civil rights movement.
What was it about this production that drew you and made you want to be a part of it?
Telling this real story in Scottsboro Boys about these real people is what truly makes it an honor. There are many great shows out there the deal with issues of race and injustice. But none like this one.
Can you take us through your preparation process when preparing for this role?
I read the book that my character wrote about the experience. Also, there is a lot of information about Haywood and the Scottsboro boys, via books and the Internet. I prepared differently for this role because he was a real person, and it was important to me to be as honest and truthful, the best way I could, to who this person was. Normally when I prepare for a roll, I just read the play over and over. If it’s a musical, I studied the music over and over. I try to get the show in my DNA before we even start rehearsing so I have room to play when we actually start.
Best advice to young actors?
Be the best you that you can be. As a 5’7, dark skinned, African-American man, some might make the argument that I am not a enough of this or too much of that. And for years I probably catered to trying to change myself, to make myself more appealing. But in the end, I can only be me. And I refuse to waste any time being anything but that. Look in that mirror…love yourself… and smile.
Favorite quote or affirmation?
All limitations are self-imposed
What’s next for James Earl Jones II?
I will be playing the Chris Rock role of “ arty” in “Madagascar the Musical” at the Marriott Theatre based on the movie. So bring your kids. www.marriotttheatre.com/shows/Madagascar. I will also be performing in their upcoming musical, “She Loves Me”. Which will be pretty amazing, because there has never been a person of color in that show. And then I will be performing in an amazing show at the Court Theater, in Hyde Park, opening its new season this fall. And although I cannot disclose the name of the show, you do NOT want to miss it. smile
“The Scottsboro Boys”, which also stars Cynthia Clarey, Mark JP Hood, and Larry Yando, runs through March 12th at Stage 773 located at 1225 W. Belmont Ave in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. For more information on the play, please visit www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.