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Black theatre artist panel discusses Shakespeare, hard work, and passion

Harry Lennix (C86) may be known for his role on NBC’s breakout hit, The Blacklist, but the Northwestern University School of Communication alumnus originally wanted to be a priest.

“My father died when I was two,” said Lennix during an Oct. 25 Cahn Auditorium event as the school’s 2014 Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence. “Priests were father figures. And I wanted to be that for kids who didn’t have fathers.” 

But, he soon found his talents lay on the stage, when during a school play, his fellow actor got stage fright and forgot all his lines. Lennix knew the script inside and out. “I did both his lines and mine,” he said.

Now, a successful movie and TV star, Lennix returned to campus to participate in a panel co-sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival. “Black Theater is Black Life” was moderated by theatre associate professor Harvey Young. Also participating in the discussion was Lennix’s longtime friend, Chuck Smith, the Goodman Theatre’s resident director. The group spent an hour discussing their own experiences with a diverse group of topics, ranging from their love of Shakespeare to the future of black theatre.

Young called Lennix “the hardest working actor in Hollywood.” Lennix recently starred in and executive-produced the independent movies Romeo & Juliet in Harlem and H2, a re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. He squeezed in time for the panel discussion during busy shoots for both The Blacklist and for his new movie, Batman vs. Superman, which also stars Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill.

“I worked as part of the crew, hanging lights in this very theater,” Lennix said of Cahn Auditorium. “It’s nice to be back. Northwestern is very important to me and I’m grateful to come back any time I can.”

Young asked Lennix and Smith if they had any advice for the School of Communication first-year theatre majors in the audience.

“I do think the first thing you really need to do is ‘to thine own self be true,’” Lennix said.

Lennix said up and coming theatre majors should decide about what their passions are and pursue them, whether that means wanting to be rich and famous, or whether that means pursuing great literature on stage, adding that the latter might mean working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Lennix said during his stint on Chicago stages, he worked full time as a Chicago Public Schools teacher while sometimes juggling performances in two plays.

From left: Associate professor Harvey Young, Goodman Theatre resident director Chuck Smith, and the 2014 Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence Harry Lennix (C86)

“You have to be willing to suffer,” Smith added. “But actors have to act. Harry does what he does because he has to do it. If you don’t have that passion, then find your passion.”

Lennix said he credits Smith with helping him learn the “Chicago way” of acting, which focuses on blocking a scene physically before adding in the layers of emotion or motivation, an approach he has carried with him to TV and film.

Smith also talked about the evolving roles for black actors on stage, and lauded the work of August Wilson, a Pulitzer-prize winning American playwright who wrote ten plays set in different decades that focused on the African American experience.

“It’s a lot different than it used to be,” Smith said, discussing the evolution of black theatre. “We’ve got lots of talented actors and amazing plays but there are just not enough producers.”

Lennix went a step further, arguing that there needs to be more diverse content, especially in TV and film, adding that too many black roles are relegated to that of harmful stereotypes.

“So many talented actors and actresses are really forced to work on substandard [projects] because the patrons aren’t seeking out better work,” he said. “They’re happy to settle for a hamburger instead of demanding more…What people are seeing about us in movies and fiction is just wrong.

As the panel took questions from the audience, one struggling young African American actor said she was tired of people telling her about the roles she couldn’t play.

“I hear the pain in your voice,” Lennix told the young woman. “…but I don’t think you have to stand against something. Stand for something. To hell with the people who tell you no. Go and make the roles you want happen for yourself.”

The Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence Program was established at the School of Communication and inaugurated in 1990 through a generous gift from Hope Altman Abelson, a former Northwestern theatre student who went on to become a Broadway producer and co-founder, with her husband Lester Abelson, of the League of Chicago Theatres.

-Cara Lockwood