Actor JoeNathan Thomas had a photo shoot scheduled at dawn at a 10-acre farmstead in Corcoran, just 20 miles northwest of Minneapolis, where he keeps two dozen workhorses. But an urgent call caused him to bolt from the paddock. A morning count at another farmstead where he works with breeding bulls showed only 16 — one fewer than the number that had bedded down the night before.
Thomas hopped into his pickup and gunned the engine, toggling between a country station and Minnesota Public Radio as he drove an hour north to Milaca, Minn. As he slid out of the truck in the morning mist, the cattle barely budged behind their electric fence, except for two bulls in an argument — a heavier, more mature black male and a younger one, also black, pawing the ground.
A disturbance was brewing.
"Don't mess up my count," Thomas yelled at the young bull as he walked and tallied the others. "You can outrun him for about 100 feet but that's it. You've got to know what you're dealing with."
Actors are renowned for having unusual jobs but perhaps few are as rare as Thomas' fallback. When he's not treading the boards as an actor in Children's Theatre Company's "Annie," Thomas cowboys professionally across the nation. He also works as a farrier or horse blacksmith. It's a trade he learned from his grandfather growing up in ranch country in northeast Texas.
"He was not the cuddly type but he was a legendary horseman and he gave me something of value," Thomas said.
Being a farrier is a way of life for Thomas, who relates it to everything he does as a rare Black man in a rarefied field. He offers instructions in dressage, hunting, jumping and riding saddle seat.
"As a horseman, you can't be average or just good, you have to be undeniable," he said.
It's an attitude he takes to his characters on stage. He was in "Canned Goods" at Penumbra, "1968" at History Theatre, "The Burial at Thebes" at the Guthrie and "Citizen" at Frank Theatre. Now he's playing perhaps the biggest role of his career, billionaire protector Daddy Warbucks in "Annie," which begins previews Sunday in Minneapolis.
"Oh, what's so special about JoeNathan Thomas? Let me count the ways," said director Peter Rothstein. "He has such command with his basso profundo voice and such presence that we completely believe he's this billionaire. And he has this compassion that when his heart melts, oh, it's beautiful. He has everything it takes to do this role, which is the most transformative in the piece."
Thomas is approaching the role the way he lives his life: with total honesty. Warbucks has a certain heft and gravitas, Thomas said. "I'm bringing myself to him but I'm not going to take him to church."
Doctor Doolittle dreams
If Thomas, 59, seems free, he has earned his stripes. Born in Sulphur Springs, Texas, he dreamed of being a veterinarian since he was knee-high to a flea. And he would have been Dr. Doolittle, except for a death that changed his trajectory. Thomas was 6 when his younger brother, Rickey, died of pneumonia.
"Rickey was the opposite of me. He was dark, talented and artistic and I was the kid with blond hair who loved horses," Thomas said. "But we were inseparable. Together, we were one person."
Thomas recalled that at Rickey's funeral a community elder told him that he was now carrying the spirit of his dead brother. That's about when Thomas started memorizing lines to "Bonanza" and TV musicals — lines he would recite to the cattle.
To this day, he feels that it is sometimes easier to communicate with animals than with people.
"When I go to work on a horse, I'm being paid by a human but my relationship is with the horse," Thomas said. "People say things like 'Down, boy' or whatever but the horse only hears the intonation. The [horse] watches the shift of your weight, and whether there's fear in your voice. Then they think, 'Where's the wolf.' Me, I'm communicating with them, watching their ears, gestures, reassuring them. I sometimes I have to tell the owners to leave."
Thomas got his first experience with theater not by choice, but as punishment. In his junior year of high school, he and another boy got upset that their school was not participating in a rodeo. They loaded up two 50-gallon drums of manure and dumped the contents on the steps of the school, a protest that they had bragged about in advance. The sheriff was there, waiting for them.
His punishment was to clean up the mess and to participate in the school's plays. It was supposed to be a non-macho comeuppance for someone known around campus for playing football and riding bulls. He thought of it in the same terms and was determined to sabotage the musical, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
"I was just aching to get out of the role so I decided to make a joke of it," Thomas recalled. "I put a lot of baby powder on my costume so whenever I walked, it wafted everywhere and I was surrounded by a cloud of white smoke. The audience absolutely loved it. I was determined to ruin the show by doing something stupid and it absolutely made the show. The next day at school, [I] was a big hit. It was gratifying for a 17-year-old to get such applause and less taxing on the body than rodeo."
Even so, he continued to move between the two worlds. In fact, he lives as a bridge between divides — rural and urban, Republican and Democrat, Black and white.
"If we take the time to listen to each other, spend some time with each other, we're far more alike than anything else," Thomas said. "We all want the same things."
Marked by wanderlust and a rebellious streak, Thomas spent five years in the Marines — a spell that saw the end of his marriage. (Thomas has four adult sons.) He enlisted in the Marines after his no-nonsense grandfather told him that he would not make a good one.
Thomas similarly relocated to Minnesota because someone doubted that he could survive the winters, and dared him. That was in the early 1990s. He moved on a Monday, auditioned for a show at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres on Tuesday, and got a callback on Wednesday. By Friday, he was subbing in the production that was onstage, "Phantom of the Opera."
And while both theater and horsemanship have their downsides on the spirit, being a horseman — from riding bucking broncos in rodeos to roping calves — definitely has left marks on his body. He has broken both arms, both legs, and a slew of ribs. He's had his left eye socket reconstructed. And after one ride and tumble, he was in a coma for days.
By that measure, theater is a breeze, especially since he is returning to CTC. Over two decades ago, he was in the company of "Once on This Island" there, with Paris Bennett as a preteen.
"Everybody just brought it," he said. "We're doing the same thing here, coming out of a hard time."
Sounds like they plan to make the sun come out onstage.
Who: Composed by Charles Strouse with lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan. Directed by Peter Rothstein and choreographed by Kelli Foster Warder.
When: 7 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1 & 5 p.m. Sat. & Sun. Ends Jan. 9.
Where: Children's Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required for ages 2 and up. Vaccination cards or proof of negative COVID-19 test for ages 12 and up.
Tickets: $15-$88. 612-874-0400 or childrenstheatre.org.