The love this man carries is impressive!

Photo Billy Bustamante.
Photo Billy Bustamante.

Actor, educator, thespian, and professor… Forrest McClendon just wrapped up doing Romeo & Juliet at the North Carolina Shakespearean festival and it’s only the beginning.  He his living the life of his dreams, is the epitome of ‘walking joy’ and there’s no stopping him as he is clearly focused and on the path to realizing everything that he thinks and desires to do with his life.

Forrest grew up in a Norwalk, Connecticut public housing development and comes from a large family led by his very strong and capable mother. While she by far has been the biggest influence on his heart, he was afforded the opportunity to have a family of great ladies; all of whom had a hand in raising him to live in a complex world. His personal circle is strong but formidable, his heart is ready, and he is ready and waiting for all the even greater things to come.

Single and without any children, this Lancaster, PA resident has performed on Broadway during the 2010 season for The Scottsboro Boys; a performance which earned him a Tony Nomination in 2011. His greatest joy is his work and he has a real passion for his NOW experience. He believes that God has done an excellent job with the direction of his life, and has no regrets past or present. He shares with us his zest for life, the love he has for his work, and what makes him master of both his art and his craft!

How do you balance your art and the roles you’ve accepted against the stereotypes that people expect men of color to play?

Photo Nick Gould
Photo Nick Gould

I am absolutely living the life of my dreams and I believe in living the life of my dreams. That means choosing the roles that are of interest to me. I am not here because I’ve been relegated to play Shakespeare, I’m here because I’ve chosen to. My next stop is Othello. That was really the blessing of doing The Scottsboro Boys and having the Lord give me greater visibility. I believe that when one gets what most people call a ‘big break’, it is something that you can wedge underneath a thing and use as leverage to achieve something else. For me, it is using that greater visibility to even more aggressively do the roles that I choose to do. It’s an honor to me that I am now invited in to do many things, some of which can be stereotypical. The power of freedom is really the power to choose. God provides to me everything I absolutely ever need and with that providence I feel that I have the power to choose and it’s the only power that I assert aggressively. The Scottsboro Boys was not the beginning, but more part of the ride in the life of my dreams. I didn’t suddenly gain visibility and decide to move back into the middle of Manhattan. I don’t live in Manhattan or Philadelphia. I live in Amish country. It allows me a sanctuary, in spite of the hectic pace of my working travels all over the country.

Does spirituality play the leading role in your own life’s work?  I’m firm in my belief and faith. The Lord is my great agent and my great provider. He is my guidance, my providence, and I refer to Him as my GPS – my Guidance, Providence and Support.

Would you say that along your life’s path you always knew that this is what you wanted to do?
I had an AHA moment and was forced to change directions. I went to college as a computer science and electrical engineering major. It probably wasn’t a good idea because I wasn’t very good at math. I did an internship my sophomore year with a technology company and simultaneously performed in an Operetta, and that was the moment for me. Doing science and art at the same time allowed me to weigh the importance of those two things in my life and against one another. Just as the School of Engineering was throwing me out, the School of Fine Arts was throwing me a life line, and I went on to study singing. It was a major change in direction. Initially when developing my study of voice I struggled a lot with my technique. I began to study the art of voice.

I studied speech pathology and learned about all of the muscles used in sound production, and that literally became the foundation of my teaching. That’s why I’ve been pretty much a scientist and an artist all of my life, a scholar and an artist all of my life, and an actor and teacher all of my life. I’m usually doing both of those things at the same time all of the time in my life. As long as that’s happening I’m living the life I desire. From that shift in direction, that is the one thing that has always remained true: I have always been acting, I’ve always been teaching, and I’ve always been doing them at the same time. It’s what it’s always been and what I imagine it will always be.

What is the one thing you would like to impart to and share with others?
DREAM! Who I am is my message. 
I really believe that I’m living the life of my dreams and so I believe in dreams. Beyond dreams is the realm of the unimagined, the realm of the unimaginable. God exceeds me so I love the idea that I can say I wish to do this or that. What continues to astonish me is the unimaginable way that God can make that manifest. I don’t know how things come together. I only know that I think I dream something extraordinary, but He comes along and makes my unimaginable thoughts only the beginning of the blessing that is actually imparted.

On living the life of his dreams…
God obviously had great things in mind for me. He said, not only will you work with legends in the theater and be certified as master in the craft, but you will tell one of the most important stories in our nation’s history and you will celebrate the legacy of all of the great African American artists who have ever lived. That is the realm of beyond imaginable. What I observe is that if He is working like that then I’m giving Him my GPS. I am trying to let Him have as much room as possible because He’s doing quite well.  I can’t live the life of my dreams unless conflict can be okay. There’s no existence of peace without the substantiation of conflict..

Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival
Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival

The Scottsboro Boys…

I cannot take anything about the Scottsboro Boys lightly. What was extraordinary to me was to rip that chapter from our nation’s history and to tell the story at all. I literally shared the stage with 11 African American men all of whom had been to college: A landmark moment. I had one of the most enjoyable times of my life sharing the stage with such remarkable talent. It was clear then, as it has always been, that teaching and the arts  is something that will forever collide in my lifetime. I find myself simultaneously doing both and gladly. There was a lot of controversy surrounding our portrayal of the work, which many did and should very well have found objectionable. At the same time when we don’t resurrect these art forms that are archaic and racist, we will forget that they are there.  When you are called to do the Scottsboro boys and agree, you have already embarked upon and agreed to do something difficult. I live a conflicted life so it was right in line with who I am.  With this type of work, you are saying to the world I’m going to tell you this story about these 9 boys and this really isn’t pretty. And when you then say I’m going to do this by resurrecting one of the most racist art forms ever known in American culture, you have created a real recipe for controversy and for picketing. In the end, for me, I knew it was the right thing to do because I am always looking for that thing that makes people want to holler. My message is education at the end of the day and theater is a great vehicle for doing that. There was no hesitation at all whatsoever when accepting the role. The Scottsboro Boys is a Kander and Ebb musical based on the trial and has the framework of a minstrel show with a cast that consisted of all African Americans except for one.

People always ask me why I do a lot of Shakespeare….

I know that I love language and so I appreciate the opportunity to really explore the far too many fantastic words that we no longer use…words that if we did use them, we might not need to use our fists quite so much. It feels like the invention of being human to me.  I think for me, I particularly love Shakespeare because he writes nothing but human thought. When you really connect into those thoughts it makes you deeply investigate humanity. In order to do Shakespeare you have to be slightly off balance. You can’t be ahead of yourself. The thoughts and the feelings are coming too fast. It’s not just a facility with language, but also a facility with a great deal of emotion.

What is the one dream for your life you most look forward to having come true?  I am going to travel the world and continue doing Shakespeare, on Broadway and in the West End. That is what I’m trying to do. I wish for that and I imagine that.