The cowardly lion is a character that inspires courage, and the man under the make-up in Red Mountain Theater Company’s production of The Wiz may understand a thing or two about that.
During the week, Anthony Washington appears to be like anyone else: waking up, heading into work and going home. But Washington doesn’t go home after 5 p.m.
Washington plays the sassy but cowardly lion in The Wiz, a Broadway musical adaptation of the Wizard of Oz that has won seven Tony Awards. The Broadway production fuses gospel, rock and soul music to create Dorothy’s story as she tries to help her friends and herself “ease on down the road” to the great Wiz.
Washington arrives at the theater at 5:30 p.m. and spends the next 45 minutes in make-up before donning his lion costume. Thirty minutes into the show, the lion appears, singing “I’m a mean ole lion” wearing a long brown coat with a bush of fur around the collar and a skull and cross bones patch across the arm. Soon, though, Dorothy (played by Abijah Cunningham) shows the audience his true character when she scares the lion to tears. He’s a coward, but along his journey through Oz, he discovers his courage.
“The lion was my dream role,” said Washington. “I’ve always wanted to play the lion in The Wiz because I connect with him…and when I found out that RMTC was going to do The Wiz, I had already proclaimed and I had spoken out into the universe that I will be the lion.”
Washington moved to Birmingham from Los Angeles when he was six years old, but even at that age he had a love for performing in front of an audience. His elementary performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was the production that Washington said “opened his mind” to music and theater. But it wasn’t until 5th grade when his English teacher decided to show The Sound of Music at the end of the school year that he knew he had to perform.
“An explosion went off in my head like fireworks,” he said. “That’s when it all came together. Once I saw Julie Andrews running across that hill talking about the hills are alive with the sound of music— I loved music and everything that had to do with that and every aspect.”
As Washington grew up, his love for performing never faltered. At Huffman High School, he practiced performing before a crowd in show choir, chamber choir, band and theater. He even performed on the field as part of the Huffman High School football team.
“I was always that kid to do everything,” he said. “I was always involved.”
In college at Alabama State University, he continued performing with his voice and on the saxophone in his college band. He eventually transferred to Jacksonville State University and graduated with a degree in music education. He could be teaching, he said, but he later realized his passion was the stage.
Early in his career, Washington worked with Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity (JCCEO) and traveled across the country performing in shows that targeted teenagers — illustrating the negative effects of drug use and peer pressure. During this time, he met actress, choreographer and director Debbie Allen who gave the JCCEO performers wise council.
“Never give up,” Allen said. “Never ever give up. No matter how old you are, always reach for the stars and do what you want to do. Who knows when you’ll get that big break?”
Her words resonated with Washington and inspired him to pursue his dream.
“I never gave up,” he said. “I’m 32 now, and I’m still reaching for the stars.”
For the last eight years, Washington has been grabbing roles on the side while working in finance at Wells Fargo. In his theatrical career, he has performed in shows such as Grease, Rent, While the World Watched and Black Nativity. Washington first became associated with RMTC through his audition for and performance in The Color Purple, and later performed in the company’s production of Holidaze. He said RMTC “opened my creativity as a performer and as an entertainer. They’re very professional and they make you better yourself and your craft.”
Washington grew up watching the 1978 movie version of The Wiz with Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tinman and Ted Ross as the Lion. Later, after being introduced to the Broadway world, the Lion became his dream role. The lion is the comedic relief, and Washington said that fits his personality perfectly.
“I love to laugh, I love to joke,” he said. “I love to have a good time. I’m really basically playing myself on stage.”
Months before the auditions last year, Washington researched the character and the role. He said he knew that out of the 1,500 other men auditioning for the Lion, he would be the one to get the role.
Tragedy struck two weeks before the auditions. Washington was robbed at gunpoint while using an ATM. He heard gunshots as he ran back to his car. He rushed into the car and started to drive, not yet realizing fully what had happened. When he looked down, Washington discovered two holes in his shirt.
He’d been shot, he realized as he pulled over at a gas station. Then he collapsed.
He spent five hours in the hospital, where he was told the extent of his injuries. One bullet hit his stomach. A second bullet narrowly missed his heart.
“The doctors, they were just like … ’There has to be a higher power because medically you’re supposed to be dead,’” Washington said. “But the way the bullet went into my chest, it jumped over my heart and over my rib cage and that bullet is still in my chest now because they didn’t want to take it out…”
At first, the incident deterred him from going to audition for the role he had dreamed about most of his life, but he decided to go anyway.
“I was very sore,” Washington recalled. “I was drugged up, but I still went.”
He said the director and the other actors were unaware of his physical and mental state during the audition.
“I didn’t want to let them know and I didn’t want to make an excuse,” Washington said. “I was bandaged up, wrapped up under my t-shirt, and I was just trying to put on a smiling face, which I did, but I was in a lot of pain.”
He said he never questioned why it happened to him, that he felt blessed that it wasn’t his time to die, and that it re-enforced the notion that he was destined to perform in The Wiz.
Rehearsals began a year later on his birthday, April 21, 2015. He and the other cast members went through three weeks of rehearsals, practicing 12 hours a day Tuesday through Friday and 5 p.m. to midnight on weekends.
While singing and acting come more naturally to him, Washington said dancing was a struggle: “I’m not the typical dancer…So I’ve always had to train a little harder when it comes to choreography.”
Washington worked with Broadway choreographer Dominque Kelley, who has collaborated with artists like Taylor Swift, and Kelley gave him confidence.
“He just assured me that everything was okay and that I was great…” he said. “To have someone of that magnitude in the entertainment industry to tell me something like that, it was great. Just to be under his direction was just a blessing.”
To do Broadway, you have to be a “triple threat” said Washington and his experience with Kelley had helped him become a better entertainer.
Washington said that Rufus Bonds, director of The Wiz, is another influential person in his career. Bonds directed the theatrical productions of Into the Wood and The Wizard of Oz and acted in Broadway productions such as Rent, Parade, and Once on this Island.
“Talking to him was like talking to Maya Angelo or Oprah, you just sit in awe of them…” Washington said. ”He’s done what I want to do…”
However, Washington was reluctant when Bonds asked him to move back to join his theater company in L.A.
He admitted he is reluctant to move to such a big city, but the possibility isn’t completely out of the picture.
“You never know until you try,” Washington said. “And that’s what the character of the lion [has] given me — that courage.”