Joshua Henry, who stars as Aaron Burr, says the mu­si­cal is about in­clu­sion, pa­tri­o­tism and hope.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Jes­sica Gelt jes­sica.gelt@la­times.com

Joshua Henry is at a loss for words. It doesn’t hap­pen of­ten. The gre­gar­i­ous, golden-voiced ac­tor who stars as Aaron Burr in the na­tional tour of “Hamil­ton” open­ing Wed­nes­day at the Hol­ly­wood Pan­tages is as hy­per-ar­tic­u­late as he is hum­ble. But the thought of “Hamil­ton” as a cul­tural force un­like any­thing be­fore it — one that has the power to change the way chil­dren of color see them­selves — has him all choked up.

Sit­ting in a booth at Sams Amer­i­can Eatery, down the street from the Or­pheum Theatre in San Fran­cisco, where for the last six months he has ap­peared on­stage in one sold-out show af­ter an­other, Henry takes a deep breath and shifts his gaze mo­men­tar­ily sky­ward to gather his thoughts.

“As a black man in this show, I’m ex­cited for the lit­tle chil­dren of color that get to see me do this,” he says, ex­plain­ing that their par­ents of­ten take them to meet him at the back­stage door. “They want their chil­dren to see what’s pos­si­ble, they want them to know that you mat­ter a lot, no mat­ter what any­body says, you can be im­por­tant, you’re valu­able, you have some­thing to con­trib­ute and that is the big­gest.…”

He stops here, his eyes fill­ing with emo­tion. “That’s the big­gest thing for me with this show.”

He looks away and shakes his head ever so slightly, try­ing to clear the tears that fog his vi­sion. Then he looks straight ahead and nods em­phat­i­cally. “Yeah,” he says. The mo­ment brings chills that linger in the brief si­lence that fol­lows. Th­ese are the same chills au­di­ence mem­bers might feel who, hav­ing never seen “Hamil­ton” be­fore, are sud­denly con­fronted with a stage filled with ac­tors of color on a scale they may never have seen be­fore. Black ac­tors, Asian ac­tors, Latino, white — all singing about the found­ing of a coun­try, their coun­try, in a way that feels at once acutely fa­mil­iar and com­pletely fresh.

That’s the power of “Hamil­ton,” Henry says — the di­ver­sity on­stage, as metic­u­lously con­ceived by cre­ator Lin-Manuel Mi­randa. Par­tic­u­larly when cou­pled with char­ac­ters that un­til now have been uni­ver­sally as­so­ci­ated with white mas­culin­ity.

“It’s an anom­aly,” Henry says of the mu­si­cal’s black Burr, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Alexan­der Hamil­ton. “This cast telling a story of Amer­ica then, the way it looks now.”

Henry goes on to say that for him the show is about in­clu­sion and pa­tri­o­tism, about how we all — re­gard­less of where we’re from or what we look like — can suc­ceed and do great things for their coun­try.

In many ways, that’s what Henry feels like he’s do­ing in “Hamil­ton.” It’s not just a plum act­ing gig. It’s a call­ing. It’s what he was meant to do. He calls him­self a spoke in a wheel that is much big­ger than he is.

Op­ti­mism is one of Henry’s defin­ing traits. His shirt on this chilly morn­ing is a cheer­ful yel­low. His smile is eas­ily sum­moned, and it takes over his face un­til it seems he is smil­ing with the en­tirety of his be­ing. You could call it charisma, which it most cer­tainly is, but there is more to it. He is a true believer — not only in him­self and “Hamil­ton” but in a brighter fu­ture that can be won only through kind­ness and hu­man­ity.

“I al­ways tell peo­ple that when Josh wakes up, you can hear him smil­ing,” says Henry’s mother, Leila Henry, by phone from her home in Florida. “Even as a lit­tle baby, he was like that.”

Henry’s Twit­ter feed is telling. A pinned tweet dated May 24 hov­ers at the top. It reads, “Have you heard that you’re amaz­ing? Well, not enough. YOU’RE AMAZ­ING! Also, have you told any­one that re­cently? Please do.”

Find him on Face­book and you’ll see a video that he took of a scream­ing crowd out­side of the Or­pheum wait­ing to see the show. Henry has cen­tered his face in the screen and pans the crowd in a wide arc while say­ing brightly, “Love you San Fran­cisco!”

At 32, Henry has been act­ing se­ri­ously for more than a decade. He has twice been nom­i­nated for a Tony Award: in 2011 for the role of Hay­wood Pat­ter­son in “The Scotts­boro Boys” and in 2014 for play­ing Flick in “Vi­o­let.”

When the for­mer ar­rived at the Ah­man­son in L.A. in 2013, Times theater critic Charles McNulty wrote that Henry’s “pow­er­house per­for­mance … gives this daz­zling, en­ve­lope-push­ing show a beau­ti­ful grav­ity.”

A re­view of “Vi­o­let” in the New York Times cred­ited the evening’s “ul­ti­mate show­stop­per” to “Mr. Henry’s thrilling ren­di­tion of ‘Let It Sing.’ ”

“Hamil­ton,” how­ever, is Henry’s fa­vorite mu­si­cal. So when he was of­fered the role of Burr in the Chicago pro­duc­tion, where he starred for 15 months, he felt his ca­reer had as­cended to a whole new level.

“As you keep go­ing, as you get higher and higher, the de­mands get greater and the spot­light gets brighter, and there’s a lit­tle more iso­la­tion, so I try to sur­round my­self with great peo­ple who re­ally have my best in­ter­ests in mind, who have known me be­fore any of this hap­pened,” he says.

Those peo­ple in­clude his par­ents and his wife, a nurse named Cathryn Henry who works in New York but who comes to see him ev­ery two weeks or so when he’s on the road.

Henry was raised in Mi­ami by im­mi­grant par­ents from Ja­maica. His mother works at an ac­count­ing firm, and his fa­ther is a math teacher. Hard work was in their blood, and they passed on this ethic to Henry, along with a sense that there was no limit to what their three chil­dren could achieve.

Henry’s fa­ther drove 30 miles to work daily, stop­ping to drop off his wife at work. He picked her up on the way home.

“He put a spir­i­tual foun­da­tion in us that made us ready for the pit­falls that would come, and the things we would have to do in Amer­ica,” Henry says, re­call­ing how he learned to sing and play gui­tar in church as a young boy. “I re­mem­ber go­ing to col­lege and my par­ents telling me that I would have to work twice as hard to be at the same level.”

That sen­ti­ment is a theme in “Hamil­ton” and one of many rea­sons why Henry feels such a kin­ship with the show.

“We had to pump up our chil­dren a lot, be­cause we live in a coun­try that is not al­ways kind to peo­ple of color,” Leila Henry says. “So we coun­tered that with the pos­i­tive. We raised Josh with some strong core val­ues, and he has taken them on as his own.”

As a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami, Henry au­di­tioned for the mu­si­cal theater de­part­ment at the be­hest of his high school cho­rus teacher, Bir­git Fio­ra­vante, who had re­al­ized his tal­ent and had cast him as the lead in “The Mu­sic Man.” Af­ter a five-day run she came to Henry with tears in her eyes and told him, “You know, you can do this for a liv­ing.”

Henry re­mem­bers the mo­ment as marked by in­credulity. To Fio­ra­vante he replied, “Do what?” He didn’t un­der­stand that singing and danc­ing could be a ca­reer.

Fio­ra­vante, who has since founded a vo­cal boot camp for as­pir­ing singers called Opera Fu­sion in Fort Laud­erdale, says she had never be­fore taken a stu­dent aside and said any­thing like that. She al­ways feared seed­ing false hope in a no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult field. Henry was dif­fer­ent, though. “He was go­ing to be an ac­coun­tant!” she ex­claims by phone. “And some­thing was nag­ging at me. I thought, ‘This kid re­ally doesn’t know what he has.’ ”

Since then, she says, he has called her from time to time to thank her.

“He’s a very warm per­son, and he’s very grate­ful for what hap­pened to him,” Fio­ra­vante says. “I think he un­der­stands that it doesn’t hap­pen for ev­ery­body.”

Talk to Henry about his life, and it’s easy to see that’s true. He still feels as if he’s dream­ing.

“This is my gift. This is my time. This is my pur­pose right now,” he says. “I be­lieve in it like I do my next breath.”

Out on the street an hour later, Henry dons a puffy sleeve­less jacket and a base­ball cap. As he blends into the noon­time foot traf­fic, a home­less man in a tat­tered coat asks who he is, and then looks at him with won­der.

“He’s the star? You’re kid­ding me!” he says. “They’re tak­ing high school kids to see him. There’s some­thing his­toric about that play.”

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

JOSHUA HENRY has been act­ing se­ri­ously for more than a decade and has two Tony nom­i­na­tions, but he says the role of Burr has taken his ca­reer to a new level.

Joan Mar­cus

H E N RY as Burr in the tour­ing pro­duc­tion. “This is my pur­pose right now,” he says. “I be­lieve in it like I do my next breath.”

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