“Taraji was so afraid after that, if we were out at night,” Gordon remembers now, in a telephone call from her home in Palm Coast, Fla.
Boris Henson, meanwhile, fell into homelessness. He’d pick his daughter up from school sometimes, and they’d ride around, laughing and making plans for the future. He eventually remarried, got work as a janitor for the Washington Redskins, and was the motivating force behind his daughter’s career.
Henson had the fertile imagination of an only child.
She became best friends with Jenkins, her classmate at Friendship Educational Center (since renamed Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Center), a D.C. public school across the street from her apartment.
The girls were both in the drama club and became inseparable. They competed in the District’s Miss Talented Teen Contest. Jenkins won; Henson, whose character “jumped out of a window and died” at the end of her skit, was first runner-up. They both went to Ballou for ninth grade, and Henson was an acknowledged troublemaker. “I was the class clown. ... I was downright disruptive.”
Both girls applied to Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Jenkins, who would later found a nonprofit for the arts, was accepted. Henson was rejected. She was crushed.
Her mother moved just across the Maryland line, and Henson wound up at Oxon Hill High School. She and Jenkins remained close, as their parents happened to get places in the same apartment complex.
After high school, with her theater dreams appearing to be at a dead end, Henson enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, planning to be an electrical engineer. But she bombed pre-calculus, and her father encouraged her to come home and pursue her dream at Howard University’s theater program.
She had to sit out a year, working at the Pentagon as a receptionist to repay her A&T student loans. Once she started back at school, she worked the Pentagon job in the morning and as a singing and dancing waitress on “The Spirit of Washington” cruise ship in the evenings. Then, her junior year, she got pregnant. It wasn’t planned.
“She called and told me she was pregnant, and I went crazy on the phone,” Gordon remembers. “She said, ‘Mama, I knew you were going to act this way, so I’m going to hang up the phone now.’ ”
She stuck it out, performing on stage through her second trimester. After Marcel was born, she’d lug him around campus, keeping to her class schedule. She graduated with a child, a ton of student loan debt and not one job prospect. (She did not marry Marcel’s father, William Johnson, who was murdered in Washington in 2003, and declines to talk about him.)