It’s said that a coward dies a thousand deaths and a brave man only once, but Alton Fitzgerald White is about to die bravely for the 4,000th time playing Simba’s regal dad in “The Lion King.”
White first starred as Mufasa 12 years ago, in the first touring production of the long-running Broadway hit, Disney Theatricals said in announcing the impending milestone. He returned to the role in “The Lion King” production that ran at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas from 2009 to 2011. Now he’s Mufasa at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway.
Saturday evening White will be done in for that 4,000th time by his character's evil brother, Scar, pushed from a cliff to be trampled by wildebeest – but not before saving his cub and heir-to-be from the stampeding herd.
As a musical theater veteran, White is no stranger to stage heroism, having played Jackie Robinson 21 years ago in a Chicago revival of the little-known Broadway show “The First.” He also originated the firebrand role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in 1998, in the pre-Broadway tour of “Ragtime.”
Brian Stokes Mitchell got to be the first Broadway Coalhouse Walker Jr. early in 1999, but by that summer White had taken over the part, setting the stage – or the offstage – for the most famous episode of his career.
Police looking for suspected drug dealers in a Harlem apartment building where White was living arrested the actor in its lobby along with five other men. White was strip searched and missed that evening’s performance as Walker – a sympathetic character who is radicalized and becomes an avenging terrorist after racist authorities in the turn-of-the-century New York suburbs humiliate and imprison him, with tragic consequences for Walker and his doomed fiancee.
White’s false arrest became a flashpoint for a national conversation about racial profiling – a conversation that is far from done, given more recent events in Florida, the St. Louis suburbs and beyond.
The NYPD apologized, but White, who missed close to a week of performances because he was so upset, joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the city over the profiling, seeking $750,000.
“They saw that I was black, they were looking for someone, and that’s all these police officers had to know,” White told the Los Angeles Times at the time.
As he donned royal attire as Mufasa for the first time in Denver in 2002, the Denver Post reported that White's suit had been settled for an undisclosed sum.
“It was a rough time,” White told the newspaper. “Not only the actual event, but the responsibility of being the spokesperson for it was pretty heavy. But I don’t have any regrets about it because it provoked thought in people. That’s all you can hope for in theater. That’s all you can hope for in everyday life. Because it did provoke so much thought, and made people question, I have no regrets.”
Follow @boehmm of the LA Times for arts news and features