'Fences' actor got his career started at his Catholic high school

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paramount

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In a real-life
situation akin to the “High School Musical” movie franchise, Russell Hornsby
was a jock who got the acting bug via the high school musical.

Hornsby, a native of Oakland,
California, was a sophomore at the all-boys St. Mary’s College High School in
Berkeley, where he played football. But teammates dared him to try out for the
school musical, “The Wiz.”

“And when it’s a dare, you’ve got to
do it,” said Hornsby, who portrays Lyons in the new movie “Fences,” which hits
multiplexes nationwide on Christmas Day.

So, for his audition, Hornsby
prepared Bert Lahr’s soliloquy on courage as the Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard
of Oz,” the 1939 movie musical upon which “The Wiz” was based.

And, to the delight of, and an ovation
from, his fellow actors from “Fences,” Hornsby — who might have refined his
approach in the ensuring years — took it from the top, playing the part not
only of the Cowardly Lion but all his companions on the Yellow Brick Road, getting
not only the cadence and inflections of Lahr’s voice perfectly, but also the
character’s sputtering false bravado.

“Your majesty, if you were king, you
wouldn’t be afraid of anything?

“Not nobody, not nohow!”

“Not even a rhinoceros?”


“How about a hippopotamus?”

“Why, I’d thrash him from top to

“Supposin’ you met an elephant?”

“I’d wrap him up in cellophant!”

“What if it were a brontosaurus?”

“I’d show him who was King of the


“How? Courage! What makes a king out
of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage! What
makes the elephant charge his tusk, in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? What
makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh
wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes
the Hottentot so hot? What puts the ‘ape’ in apricot? What have they got that I
ain’t got?”


Hornsby snared not the Cowardly Lion
in tryouts, but the Scarecrow, and he was hooked. “Plus, there were girls
there, so that helped,” he laughed during a Dec. 6 interview with Catholic News
Service as Hornsby and other cast members from “Fences” visited Washington for
a preview screening.

On a serious note, Hornsby said,
“Athletes can get discarded quickly. I could see it even then.” That, for him,
made the switch to performing easier.

He headed east to Boston University
and got a bachelor’s degree in performance, then snagged a coveted spot in
Oxford, England, at the British Academy of Dramatic Art.

On television, Hornsby plays
Detective Hank Griffin on the NBC series “Grimm.” But in “Fences,” he plays
Lyons, the son of Troy (Denzel Washington) from an earlier marriage. As
passionate as Troy was about playing baseball — he was a Negro Leaguer but too old
to benefit from the erasure of the color line — Lyons’ passion is music and
he seeks a small loan from his dad to give his career a boost.

Hornsby and Washington are just two
of the actors reprising their roles in the film version after having acted in a
2010 Broadway revival of the August Wilson play. Wilson wrote the movie
screenplay for the film, but died in 2005. According to Mykelti Williamson, who
plays Troy’s brother on stage and on film, said Washington won the rights to
the movie, but insisted on mounting a stage production first “to be true to the

The reason for the six-year gap
between the revival and the movie? “Denzel’s got a busy dance card,” replied
Stephen McKinley Henderson, another featured performer in both the play and the
film. Henderson has acted in nine of the 10 August Wilson plays that constitute
the “Pittsburgh Cycle” — all of the shows are set in Pittsburgh — but called
in some circles the “American Century Cycle,” partly given Wilson’s standing in
American theater and partly because the plays look at the evolution of black
life and race relations in the United States through the generations.

“Suffering is a leitmotif” in “Fences,”
but “also brutal honesty and joy in unexpected moments, which is what enlivens the
movie, said Kurt Jensen, a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service, in his
review of the film. “Moral decisions, and the consequences of immoral ones,
lurk at every turn in the plot as well.”

“Fences” received a classification
of A-III – adults – for references to adultery, frequent use of the n-word and
a single instance each of profanity and rough language. Even so, Jensen
advises, “the movie’s focus on ideas and their consequences makes it acceptable
for mature adolescents.”

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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