When Taraji P. Henson was nominated for an Academy Award this year for best supporting actress in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the celebration rippled beyond Hollywood and into the halls of two historically Black universities. Henson attended North Carolina A&T State University and graduated from Howard University as a theater major in 1995.
Henson is one of dozens of female graduates from historically Black colleges or universities whose names are illuminating marquees all over the country. In films, TV, on Broadway and in community theaters, these grads are not only demonstrating their own talent but are promoting the performing arts programs of their respective institutions.
“Oh my gosh, I directed her in ‘Agamemnon’ … I’ve never seen anybody who could occupy their space the way Taraji could. You knew this girl was going somewhere,” says Mark Jolin, a professor of acting at Howard’s School of Fine Arts.
This year another African-American, Viola Davis, was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress. She did not attend an HBCU but graduated from Rhode Island College. She was nominated for her role in “Doubt” and has had an extensive career in TV and film.
Success on stage and screen is not new for Howard grads like Henson. Among the best known are sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad, who have established scholarships at their alma mater for aspiring performers. Both women have won top awards including Rashad’s
At Florida A&M University, director of theater Dr. Valencia Matthews shared in the excitement when former student Anika Noni Rose won a Tony Award for her 2004 performance in “Caroline, or Change.” Rose has since jetted to stardom, co-starring in the movie “Dreamgirls” and on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” She currently co-stars with Jill Scott in HBO’s
Professor Frankie Day of North Carolina A&T recalls being in her car the day in late 2007 when former student Zonya Love Johnson called her to announce good news. “She told me she was replacing Fantasia in ‘The Color Purple.’ I had to pull over, I was so excited.” Johnson got the role of Celie in the Oprah Winfrey production. Another A&T alumna, NaTasha Williams, also joined the Broadway cast as Sofia.
“I’m so proud of my students,” Day says. “I tell them all the time that their success is my success.”
Day and Matthews are both late 1970s’ graduates of another HBCU, South Carolina State University, which they say instilled in them the fundamentals of discipline and hard work — at a time when many Black actors in Hollywood and on Broadway were limited to stereotypical roles, if they were cast at all.
One woman who broke through that barrier was Dr. Tommie Stewart, who is now theater director at Alabama State University. Stewart (working as Tonea Stewart) is widely known for her roles in the TV series “In the Heat of the Night” and numerous movies including “A Time to Kill” and “Mississippi Burning.” Stewart was the first Black female to earn a Ph.D. in theater in the state of Florida when she received her doctorate from Florida State University.
She taught Matthews of FAMU as well as students who are now appearing on Broadway and in films. Alabama State grad Bonita J. Hamilton stars as Shenzi in “The Lion King.” Another graduate, Tangi Miller, appeared for four years in the TV series “Felicity” on the WB.
HBCUs have a long history of turning out legendary actresses dating back to 1942 when Esther Rolle graduated from Spelman College. Rolle would become one of America’s favorite characters as the matriarch in the 1970s’ TV sitcom “Good Times.” She won an Emmy for her role in the TV movie “Summer of My German Soldier.”
Other outstanding actresses who hail from HBCUs include Oprah Winfrey, who received her bachelor’s in drama and speech from Tennessee State; Wanda Sykes, who graduated from Hampton University with a degree in marketing; and Lynn Whitfield, who received a bachelor’s of fine arts from Howard.
The professors believe there are far more opportunities for Black women today in film and stage roles. “The time has come when they are being respected for their art and artistry,” Stewart says.
Jolin is cautiously optimistic. “The door is cracked, and it’s opening wider with the influx of talent that we have now.” He says more Black women are being selected for roles that are not necessarily written for African-Americans.
Matthews agrees, saying she does not see more roles, just different ones. “We’re getting to the point where race doesn’t matter as much as it did before.”
But the professors also agree that no matter how much opportunity exists, students must possess extraordinary talent — and a strong work ethic — to succeed. “Most of them don’t understand the sacrifice at first, the fact that they don’t have a normal college life and can’t participate in all of the extracurricular activities,” Day says. “I tell them ‘it’s not about you; it’s about the work.’ The ones who understand that and have the talent will make it.”
In a postscript, though neither Henson nor Davis won an Oscar last night, supporters are nonetheless still proud of their most recent and future accomplishments.
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