They grew up worlds apart - James Brown-Orleans in Ghana and Joe Jones in Lafayette Homes. But in at least one respect, they ended up in the same place, as staunch believers in the importance of strengthening relationships between fathers and sons.
Tonight, Brown-Orleans, an actor in the touring production of The Lion King, and Jones, president and founder of the nonprofit Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development, will share the stage when they join other fathers and their children in the final number of The Rising of the Son, a benefit for CFWD, performed by Lion King cast members at Center Stage.
Together, Brown-Orleans, Jones and the others will sing:
I can see generations in your eyes,
But my once broken heart still trembles on
So give me your hand and
We'll take to the skies.
The song affirms bonds that were tested during the early lives of both men. Brown-Orleans' career choice provoked his father's initial disapproval. Jones, the son of an absentee father, perpetuated the cycle by becoming the largely absent father of an out-of-wedlock son.
Both men underwent life-changing experiences at approximately the same age. At 10, Brown-Orleans was uprooted from his home in Ghana when his family moved to the Washington area, where his mother was working as a nurse and his father took a job in the education department of the Ghanaian embassy.
"Living in Ghana was like living in Neverland. It was constant playing, playing, playing, playing all day," recalls Brown-Orleans, backstage at the Hippodrome Theatre before a performance of The Lion King. "In Ghana you just never heard of a human being taking another human being's life. It was just a sense of community. ... So when we came here, for me it was like, wow, this is reality."
A few miles away, in a conference room at CFWD, Jones has a very different memory of that period in his life. At age 9, Jones watched his father pack a duffel bag and leave the family's apartment, never to return. Though his father maintained sporadic contact with his son, Jones' parents' separation and divorce "shook my world. It devastated me in ways I didn't even understand at that time," he says.
When he was 11, Jones moved with his mother, a nurse, to West Baltimore, and he became involved with some older teens who introduced him to drugs. He began using heroin and cocaine. By age 14, he was in jail, the first of a series of incarcerations that would continue for the next 17 years.
Around the time that Brown-Orleans was discovering drama at High Point High School in Beltsville, Jones was being kicked out of a series of schools - Douglass, Edmondson, Forest Park. At that point, there would have been no reason to believe that the budding actor from Ghana would ever cross paths with the repeat offender from Baltimore's mean streets, much less that they would wind up working toward the same goal.
The notion that a Broadway musical would bring them together would have seemed even more far-fetched. Yet the subject of The Lion King is particularly apropos. Loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Lion King is about the relationship between a father and son, and the son's soul-searching over whether to continue his father's legacy.
Two years ago, when The Lion King was in Cleveland, Brown-Orleans met a young boy who attended the musical with a school group. "We became good friends," says the actor, who plays Banzai, one of three rabble-rousing hyenas in the show. The son of an absentee father, the boy "was struggling with what kind of man he'd grow up to be. He was afraid he'd be like his father," says Brown-Orleans.
Before The Lion King left town, Brown-Orleans wrote a poem as a gift for the boy - "something to encourage him." Later, the actor and his partner, a former teacher named Lisa A. Hoeffner, turned the poem into a small, self-published book called The Rising of the Son and packaged it with a CD of Brown-Orleans singing a half-dozen original songs.
Then last winter, Hoeffner saw a documentary called True Dads on Spike TV. Among the fathers profiled was Joe Jones who, after completing a drug treatment program in the late 1980s, became an addiction counselor working with at-risk pregnant women for the Baltimore City Health Department.
As the documentary recounted, Jones found many services available for expectant mothers, but he found almost nothing comparable for fathers. So, in 1993, he founded the Men's Services Responsible Fatherhood Program, which later evolved into CFWD. Along the way, he re-established ties with the son who had been born out-of-wedlock, and he married and had a second son, Corey.
Last year, when Corey turned 13, Jones sat him down and told him his life story. "Dad, you were a bad man," said Corey, who is volunteering at CFWD this summer as part of his school community service requirement. Nowadays, however, Corey acknowledges, "He's a good dad even though he may get on my nerves sometimes."
Brown-Orleans and his father did more than get on each other's nerves when the actor was a teen. "We had our battles," says Brown-Orleans, recalling his father's reaction to his decision, at age 15, to become an actor.
"I was not too pleased at first because I thought that he had the capability to do pure academic work because I had been an academician, and so I thought probably my children would all follow me," says William Brown-Orleans, who retired from the Ghanaian embassy in 1996 and now works as a security guard at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Father and son were at loggerheads again a few years later when James dropped out of a business program his parents insisted he take. His father began to soften his objections when James won a scholarship to study theater at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 1989. Soon he was playing major roles with UMBC's former Shakespeare on Wheels summer theater - Ariel in The Tempest, the Fool in King Lear and the title role in Othello.
Brown-Orleans worked in and around Washington for a while, then decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. For four years he did odd jobs to support himself - from construction to delivering coffee - while appearing in occasional small theater productions and even working as a street performer. Then one day, he gave up.
"I called my folks at home from Los Angeles. I was crying at that point. I said, 'That's it. I'm coming home.' And I knew that they would be excited by the fact that I had come to my senses. I said to them, 'This is just not working out. I think you guys were right. I'm going to get a real job and just settle down.'
"And my mom and dad said to me, 'James, that's not you.' They said, 'You're not allowed to come back home.' They were like, 'We believe in you.'"
William Brown-Orleans remembers that phone call well. "I was almost downhearted and I said, 'No, no way.' I said, 'James, we have so much confidence in you. Your mom and I have so much confidence in you, and you better carry on and you will succeed.'"
His parents' unexpected support was a turning point for James. "When I hung up," he says, "something in me said, 'See, you got them to believe. If you got them to believe in you, you can get anybody to believe in you.' I don't think they realize what that did for me. But hearing them say that after all of the battles that we had gone through, it just fueled me."
On Oct. 28, Brown-Orleans played his 1,000th performance as Banzai in The Lion King. In his dressing room is a wooden plaque commemorating the event. Made by a fellow cast member, it displays a pair of Banzai's fingerless leather gloves mounted under the words "Golden Gloves."
Although Brown-Orleans and Hoeffner, his partner, wrote the words that will be spoken at tonight's benefit, they will be recited by Thomas Corey Robinson, the actor who plays Mufasa, ruler of the pride at the beginning of The Lion King. At his feet will be the four children who play lion cubs in the musical.
Compared with the real-life Baltimore fathers who will go on stage at the end of the evening, these children are seasoned performers. One of those fathers is Troy Wilkins, who graduated from CFWD's workforce development program, STRIVE, on July 29. On stage with him will be his 20-month-old son, Tion.
Sitting in a computer lab at CFWD days before he graduated, Wilkins explained what he hoped to gain from the program and what it meant to him as a father. His words exemplify the mission that unites Joe Jones and James Brown-Orleans.
"I want to be an example for my son of improvement. It's two different worlds, and the environment I come from, a lot of young black men don't go on, and when I step into the working force, it's brand new to me. I'm 30, and this is what I've been missing my whole life," Wilkins said. "I want to be able to pass that side of the world on to my son."
The Rising of the Son
What: Benefit for the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development, featuring cabaret performances by Lion King cast members and a stage adaptation of James Brown-Orleans and Lisa A. Hoeffner's book, The Rising of the Son
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
Tickets: $20 and $75 (including post-performance reception with cast members)