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Wandering Billy

Spotlight on Juan Fernandez

Remembering an icon of the Greensboro theater scene and beyond

By Billy Ingram

“Theatre is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”   — Tom Stoppard

I’m not remotely the right person to pen this. We weren’t close friends. I never met his wife, Lana, and hadn’t seen the guy in 50 years. But when I heard that former Page High School classmate Juan Fernandez (class of ’74, best ever!) passed away, I couldn’t let that tiptoe by unnoticed.

Let’s wayback to the 1972–73 school year, significant in part because the Vietnam War ended, 18-year-olds gained the right to vote, Bob Fosse’s Pippin debuted on Broadway and McDonald’s started serving breakfast (except on Sundays). It was also the year Page High junior Juan Fernandez, whose family moved here from Connecticut just a year earlier, unknowingly, but with an air of inevitability, began his journey as the first Black actor in Greensboro to be consistently cast in leading roles in both amateur and professional productions.

In 1973, Juan and I were both cast in Li’l Abner, a big, splashy musical from Broadway’s Golden Age, featuring one of the funniest scripts (by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank) and wittiest scores (Gene De Paul with lyrics by the immortal Johnny Mercer) the Great White Way ever mounted.

At Page, as directed and choreographed by Louis Hrabovsky and Frank Holder, the show featured a 22-piece orchestra recruited from the Greensboro Symphony, costumes sewn by UNCG’s theater department, and over 50 student hoofers and belters crowding the stage. This lavish but innocently sexy, fully integrated production of Li’l Abner was an unusual theatrical manifestation for a high school at that time. More importantly, during those weeks and weeks of rehearsals in the role of Marryin’ Sam, Juan Fernandez morphed from gawky teen into a dynamic performer possessing an unmistakeable brilliance comparable to any of the mid-’70s Broadway superstars I sat in awe of. And I saw ’em all, baby. Juan absolutely demolished that Li’l Abner audience on opening night.

And 15-year-old me hated him for it!

Li’l Abner was a genuine hit, largely due to Fernandez’s infectious performance. Standing ovations, sold-out crowds every night and, in the first and only instance I’m aware of, the show was held over for an additional weekend, then booked into War Memorial Auditorium for a short run. After Abner, Fernandez dazzled local theatergoers in musical productions of Showboat, Shenandoah, Godspell and Flower Drum Song, to name but a few. His range was astonishing. Livestock Players Musical Theatre, Greensboro Youtheatre, The Broach, Carolina Theatre, Barn Dinner Theatre . . . there wasn’t a stage Juan Fernandez couldn’t rob of every last laugh or teardrop, often inhabiting pivotal roles previously portrayed primarily — if not exclusively — by white actors.

“I met Juan when he was 16 and auditioned for Sweet Charity,” says Carole Lindsey-Potter, choreographer and director for Livestock Players during the years Juan Fernandez was active there. “He got the role of Daddy Brubeck, which had the best song in the show, ‘The Rhythm of Life,’ and he brought the house down.” Lindsey-Potter recalls being the first North Carolina theater group to get rights to Pippin, a musical that saw Fernandez cast as Leading Player in the Livestock Players’ 1974 production —  “his most memorable performance.”  He was what they call a triple-threat performer: “He was a wonderfully talented actor, singer and a natural dancer. Barbara Britton cast Juan as The King in The King and I in 1976. This was long before nontraditional casting here.”

Actor-director and Page alumni Charlie Hensley notes that Fernandez “was a terrific performer and a wonderful man, always at ease on stage.” What he recalls most is Ferndandez’s star turn as Daddy Brubeck in Sweet Charity. “He went on to perform ‘The Rhythm of Life’ hundreds of times after that, all over the world. He was also amazing as the lead in The King and I with Shannon Cochran.”

Obie- and Theatre World Award-winning star of stage and screen Shannon Cochran (see my April 2023 column) recalls that staging fondly. “When Juan and I did The King and I together, I think he was very conscious of the essential misogyny written into his role and went out of his way to be gallant and attentive to me. I couldn’t move easily in a hoop skirt, but he was always there with a pad or pillow for me to sit on during breaks, always helped me off the floor — our lowly heads weren’t supposed to be higher than his! — and, additionally, he was a divine dance partner! ‘Shall We Dance’ was a dizzying, thrilling ride in his arms. Such a class act with a genuinely strong stage presence.”

Greensboro’s theater scene has spawned a multitude of African-American Broadway stars — Deon’te Goodman (Hamilton), Avilon Trust Tate (The Wiz), Chris Chalk (Fences), J. Alphonse Nicholson (A Soldier’s Play)  — who surely couldn’t have known that Juan Fernandez was first to break the color barrier onstage locally. Universally loved. Universally respected.

“I worked with him once at The Broach. He was such a nice guy and good actor,” director Michael Lilly says. “I had tried to get in touch with him about a year ago in Wilmington about a project but never got a response. Then someone said he had moved to Costa Rica. I recall hearing he was not well.” Charlie Hensley remarks how, “We usually touched base a couple of times a year, I remember thinking on his birthday recently that he’d been quiet for a while.”

After high school I hadn’t much of an opportunity to interact with Juan Fernandez, having gone away to college, summers spent out of state or touring before relocating to Los Angeles in 1978. Happily, he and I connected on Facebook before his passing last year, allowing me to finally tell him how envious I was of his ability to command the audience in Li’l Abner.

True, Juan Fernandez strut from life’s stage into the wings far too soon, but it’s the actor’s lot to leave the audience wanting more. One wonders if he ever considered or was even aware of his legacy, the trail he blazed. Unlike almost every other artistic pursuit, after the curtain falls and stage lights go dark, theater leaves behind little more than a rock skipping across the surface of a pond. In the case of Juan Fernandez, the ripples he created will reverberate well into the future, lifting and inspiring not only those he came in contact with, but also performers who, decades later, unwittingly followed his lead to achieve a level of stardom that generally skirts the first player the spotlight shines upon.  OH

Make no mistake, Billy Ingram was a showstopper as Evil Eye Fleagle in Li’l Abner, but it’s worth noting that Juan Fernandez wasn’t anywhere onstage during those scenes.