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Women’s History Month – HBCU Women Light Up Stage and Screen

A Howard alumnae Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen

When Taraji Henson was nominated for an Academy Award this year for best supporting actress, 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, who was nominated for the Oscar for her role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” but did not win, is one of dozens of female graduates from HBCUs whose names are illuminating marquees all over the country. In films, on TV, on Broadway and in community theaters, these grads are not only demonstrating their own talent, but they are promoting the performing arts programs of their respective institutions.

“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 in Howard’s School of Fine Arts.

Success on stage and screen is not new for Howard grads. Among the best known are sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. Rashad won a Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Play for “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2004, and the multitalented Allen won two Emmys for the hit TV show “Fame.”

At Florida A&M University, director of theatre 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 she is currently in HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”

Actress Taraji Henson, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Matthews visited with Rose after seeing her on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” last year with Terrence Howard and Phylicia Rashad. “It was very inspiring talking with her,” Matthews says. “Anika worked very hard to get where she is. It’s almost as if she charted her course and didn’t shy away from it.” Like Jolin, Matthews was sure she had a future star in her classroom. “You just knew she was going to be successful.”

HBCUs have a long history of turning out legendary actresses dating back to 1942 when Esther Rolle, the matriarch in the 1970s TV sitcom “Good Times,” graduated from Spelman College. Others include Oprah Winfrey from Tennessee State University; Wanda Sykes from Hampton University; Lynn Whitfield from Howard; Bonita J. Hamilton, who stars in “The Lion King,” and Tangi Miller of the TV series “Felicity,” both from Alabama State University; and Zonya Love Johnson and NaTasha Williams, both from N.C. A&T and both starring in “The Color Purple” on Broadway.

“I’m so proud of my students,” says professor Frankie Day of N.C. A&T. “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.

Anika Noni Rose, from a scene in HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”

The professors believe there are far more opportunities for Black women today in film and stage roles. Jolin says more Black women are being selected for roles that are not necessarily written for African- Americans.

Matthews agrees, saying she doesn’t see more roles, just different ones. “We’re getting to the point where race doesn’t matter as much as it did before.”

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