Forrest McClendon, a stage actor, singer and educator, marked his Broadway debut with a Tony Award nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Tambo in the Broadway musical “The Scottsboro Boys.”
And now, McClendon, a faculty member at Temple University and an adjunct associate professor at the University of the Arts, recreates his role as The Philadelphia Theatre Company presents its production of the show Jan. 20–Feb. 19.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is a stirring and highly original musical that explores the infamous 1930s Scottsboro Case in which a group of African-American teenagers are falsely accused of a terrible crime, ultimately provoking a national outrage that laid the groundwork for the American Civil Rights Movement.
Featuring music and lyrics by the legendary team of Kander and Ebb, and showcasing the original direction and choreograph by Susan Stroman, “The show is told within the framework of a traditional minstrel show,” McClendon said. “Thirteen players sit in a semi-circle. In the center is an interlocutor, generally a white man, and at each end are two men called the end men. One is Mr. Bones, and the other is my character, Mr. Tambo.”
In the course of the minstrel show, McClendon said, “the end men tell jokes, propel the story forward and, in this case, play a variety of characters, including, for me, the famous Jewish lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz.”
Describing the show as a “major chapter in our racial history,” McClendon said it is necessary that he understand details of the story to help bring it to life. “It’s a show that requires big vocal and physical choices to create all the characters I play, six in all, and make sure they are clear enough for audience to be able to take the ride and believe in what they’re seeing.”
And, he said, he’s very glad he originally studied engineering before going off to be a performer. “That background allows me to play the role in an academic as well as artistic way.”
With Kander and Ebb resurrecting the archaic art form of a minstrel show, a racist art form in many people’s minds, they were able to flip the shows entirely on its head, McClendon said.
“It took a lot of research on everyone’s part, and Susan wanted all of us as actors, singers, dancers and scholars, to put their brain to work in the creative process and have everyone involved.”
McClendon was born and raised in Norwalk, Conn., and studying engineering at the University of Connecticut, eventually switched majors to vocal studies. After graduation, he was able to work his magic in a variety of venues.
Over the years, he made his mark in such productions as “Faith Journey” off-Broadway, “James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire,” “Dreamgirls: The Musical” and more.
Eventually moving to the Lancaster area, he began working in many regional shows, even winning a 1999 Barrymore Award for his role in “Avenue X” at the 11th Hour Theatre Company.
“One reason I came to Philadelphia was that this city allowed me to confront being pigeonholed and overcome it. This city lets me do plays as long as I can, or want to. It allowed me to do Shakespeare as well as musicals. I found a small company out in Lancaster where I could always be aware of what I felt talent was and pursue things of interest to me, and do as many things as I wanted to. Philadelphia is a city that allows many opportunities to be many things.”
And today, working on “Scottsboro Boys,” although a very sad chapter in our history, “allows me to work with people who bring so much joy to the creative process,” McClendon said.
For times and ticket information, call (215) 985-0420.