by Lou Mancinelli
He went with $100 in his pocket. He went with a determined vision to become a respected and versatile Broadway actor.
Now, 18 years later, Mt. Airy-raised performer and 1992 Roxborough High School graduate Rodney Hicks, 36, returns to Philadelphia as Haywood Patterson, the lead role in the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of the musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” Jan. 20 through Feb. 19, at the Suzanne Roberts Theater, 480 S. Broad St.
Maybe it was destiny. And the above-mentioned $100 journey came after Hicks had already skipped out on his acceptance to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music so that he could perform in “Mark Twain: The Musical,” his first show, in Elmira, New York.
That was in the summer of ‘94. Earlier that year, Hicks had been a Mansfield University of Pennsylvania communications and broadcasting student in north central Pennsylvania. “My college professor said to me ‘What are you doing here?’” recalled Hicks.
Hicks spent the first two years of his undergrad days writing, directing and performing in his own plays and movies, many of which focused on social awareness. Professor Michael Crum asked Hicks if he’d heard of Juilliard, one of the world’s leading arts and music schools, in New York City. No, was Hicks response. Regardless, his work was impressive enough to appeal to the school’s admissions board.
But before Hicks had the opportunity to further his education, he was cast in the Twain musical. He was the first black man to play “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and it was the first role he auditioned for.
Hicks’ good fortune continued. From “Twain” he was cast as the lead role opposite the now-world-famous hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill in “Bring in the Morning” at the Apollo Theater that same year. It was his first professional show as a member of the Actors’ Equity Association. But then the lessons came hard like a rainstorm. The show lasted a week. It failed to make Broadway.
“I learned at 20 that it (success) doesn’t happen that fast,” said Hicks.
So in less than a year Hicks went from the stage to his grandparents’ home in South Jersey. He realized he was not ready. His manager, who signed him up after seeing him perform in the Twain musical, presented Hicks with lots of scripts to read and lots of auditions. It was overwhelming. Hicks was more interested in honing his craft.
And his past already included unorthodox decisions. In high school, when Hicks was auditioning for a role in the movie “Newsies,” it was arranged for him to miss school and fly for Florida for more auditions. But his father said no. There were more important obligations. Hicks said that thought process laid the foundation for his own way of making decisions. So he left the bustle of New York to develop his craft more.
When he finally returned to New York with $100 in his pocket, Rodney lived with other actors in an apartment owned by his manager. He got auditions not from his manager but by scanning the classified ads in Backstage, a theater and movie auditions publication.
That’s when he was cast in Jonathan Larson’s musical, “Blocks.” Then he was cast in “Lotto.” At 21, he became the recipient of an Audelco Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play. Through the years Hicks has performed in dozens of workshops, which are like pilot episodes for plays. He is now also a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
“I can’t tell you how many readings and workshops of shows I’ve done that were supposed to go Broadway that didn’t,” said Hicks.
Some of them, however, did make Broadway. In 1996, he was cast, the youngest member of the troupe, in the original production of Larson’s iconic drama “Rent.” He also appeared in “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Philadelphia in 1995 during a national tour.
Since 1995, Hicks has worked as an actor overseas, around the country, on Broadway and in movies and TV. Those credits include two jaunts to L.A., including one where he walked away from the chance to be cast in the Emmy Award-winning TV series, “The West Wing.” Later, he would act on TV in “Law and Order Criminal Intent,” and the last season of the sitcom “Hope and Faith,” among others.
On stage, he has played King Lear and Hamlet and was the first African American to play Curly in a production of “Oklahoma” in Portland, Oregon.
“It was all about making the right decisions,” he said, like when to leave a show, a town or when to head home for family support. “It never was about stardom or a quick rise to fame, but investing fully in doing what I have longed to do since I was five.”
Hicks’ most recent work was in the original Broadway cast of “The Scottsboro Boys,” a production nominated for 12 Tony Awards last year. On Broadway, Hicks played the role of Clarence Norris. But in the upcoming Philadelphia production, he will play the lead.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is a musical that brings to the life the 1931 landmark trial of a group of nine black boys accused of raping two white girls in Alabama. The 1931 case came to illustrate abject racism supported by all-white juries in the Jim Crow South.
The musical is setup like a minstrel show. The happy go-lucky mood of the singers is somewhat of a satirical play on stereotypes. It also sets the stage for a light presentation of heavy topics, like race, identity and equality.
“We are not only telling the travesty of what happened to these nine young men but we are also talking about racial injustice in America in the 1930s’ South,” said Hicks. “The injustice that happened to these boys, even though all of the evidence pointed to their innocence, was almost laughable to today’s sensibilities because of how absurd and horrific it was.”
As for the future, “now that dream is my reality,” said Hicks, “I will be moving to Los Angeles to shift my focus to TV and film come July, but thankfully with a lot more than $100 in my pocket.”
For tickets and more information about “The Scottsboro Boys,” visit philadelphiatheatrecompany.org