by Sherif Awad
-I was conceived in the blend of French and African culture that permeates the southern American state of Louisiana, the only girl and first of three children who would come from two undergraduate students who met at Grambling State University. But I was actually born in Flint, Michigan, at the time a bustling metropolis still a far cry from the crime-ridden, financially and population depleted city grappling with a lead-contaminated major water supply that it has become known as in more recent years.
As a small girl, though, growing up in Flint was idyllic. Ice skating lessons at the rink downtown. A lovely brick home — complete with two-car garage, massive gated yard and milk chute in the kitchen! — just across the street from the two-story red brick elementary school where I attended with my two best friends in the world. And plenty of first cousins on both sides of my family, plus neighborhood children to hang out and have fun with.
Adding to my happy childhood were music and singing, both integral to my life even now, whether at church or just getting together with family. And dancing! I just knew that I would grow up to become a professional dancer. Credit that to the renowned Jeanne Hinote School of Dance where I began taking tap and ballet lessons at the age of five. And, at the age of six, got to represent performing with several other girls from the school on a local television broadcast of the popular children’s program of long ago, “The Bozo Show.”
But the aspiration to one day dance for a living and, indeed, my entire world was shattered when my father was transferred to an engineering job for General Motors Corp. Yes, he managed to defy the even bleaker opportunities for African-American men back then to climb the company’s corporate ladder. But that meant taking the family off to Metro Detroit. As in, a small suburban town at the time about 30 miles north of the actual city of Detroit. My family was one of the first, if not the very first black family to move there. A move, mind you, that seemed more like a world away than the less than 70 miles I found myself from everything and everyone I had known my entire life. A move that literally reduced me to tears.
Tears that finally erupted one morning as I stood on the front porch with my little brother of our family’s new condominium, a cookie-cutter, scaled-down version of what we had in Flint. Our mother with us holding our baby brother, we were bracing ourselves to cross the small residential parking lot accommodating our new home and join the cluster of children at the top of a small grassy slope. Children I had never laid eyes on before. Not one of whom shared me and my brother’s brown complexion. All waiting in disconcerting silence that frigid day typical of Michigan winters to board some big yellow bus that would come by to cart me, my brother and them away to my first day, half way through the third grade, at a new elementary school.
My mother was able to soothe me enough to coax me onto that bus with my brother when it finally arrived. And despite the life tumult that came with it, third grade didn’t turn out to be so bad.
The very next year a defining moment emerged at a newly built elementary school where I was transferred. There, the fourth grade teacher I came to cherish, Mrs. Jean Ann Luscombe, remarked to me one day that I was a good writer. It was truly a case of the proverbial light bulb coming on because from then on, I knew that I would make storytelling my life. Even if I had no idea how at the time.
By the fifth grade my teacher, Mrs. Chris Barney, saw fit to send me to a local young writers’ conference at Oakland University. Fast forward to the first half of my senior year of high school, when I took a journalism class on a whim. Turns out I loved it so much that the teacher, Mrs. Elaine Shapiro, who also happened to oversee the school newspaper, broke protocol to let me join the staff of students who put the paper out that next and final semester of high school for me. Voilà! A plausible way to make a living at what I loved to do — write.
The revelation led me to go on to earn a degree in print journalism from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Then spend nearly 20 years writing and editing for such major U.S. media outlets as Fairchild Publications, Crain Communications, The Detroit News, USA Today, Dow Jones News Service, and the New York Daily News. That is, until I felt a call to take my penchant for storytelling to another level. Which prompted me to take a beginning film production class at Montclair State University while living in northern New Jersey at the time. Shortly after that I moved back to my home state to study further at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan (MPI).
After graduating from MPI with honors I premiered my thesis project for the school, a short, narrative film looking at a day in the life of a homeless woman called On The Other Side, in 2005 to benefit the Coalition On Temporary Shelter, South Oakland Shelter, and Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan. On The Other Side was later shown around the U.S. by the likes of Women In Film at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum in Los Angeles; The Mitten Movie Project at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, MI; the Trinity Film Coalition in Detroit; the Kingdomwood Christian Film Festival in suburban Atlanta; and the 2006 Christian Film/Television Market International at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The movie won Best Inspirational Film at the Jokara-Micheaux Family Film/Video Festival in Georgia in 2006, and was nominated for an Agape Gospel Theater & Film Award at the Apollo Theater in New York City the following year.
Not one to leave well enough alone, I eventually began to study acting at the Kensington Church School of the Arts in Troy, MI, and the Detroit Repertory Theatre. That investment has paid off with an expanded creative career that has included appearances in productions at such leading professional Michigan theaters as the Detroit Rep, Meadow Brook and Outvisible. On screen, I’ve appeared in commercials, public service announcements and industrial videos for the likes of GM, Uber, Beaumont Health System, the University of Michigan, Ford Motor Co. and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. And had roles in movies like the short film, American Prophet, the full-length feature’ The Messenger’s Box, and Bilal’s Stand, the autobiographical drama that screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
-Growing up my mother was quite the at-home entertainment guru for me, ever eager to share whatever she loved on the record player or television set with her avid mini-me. From her 45 of Scottish vocalist Lulu’s heartrending “To Sir With Love” that we would sing to over and over — and over — again. To the satirically mature episodes of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” that she would sometimes let me catch with her. Or the gothic storyline of one of her favorite daytime shows, “Dark Shadows” that we were shamelessly devoted to. (I loved the main character, vampire Barnabas Collins, as quietly as it’s been kept until now. No. Seriously.)
Back in the day there seemed to be a lot more TV shows that the entire family could watch together, with, for the times, a fair share of them featuring black leading characters. To this day I believe that was integral to bolstering my self-esteem as a black child growing up in America. There were the weekly offerings of comic relief that included “Sandford and Son,” “The Flip Wilson Show” and “What’s Happening!!” And issue-infused sitcoms like “Good Times,” “That’s My Mama,” and “The Jeffersons.” There were dramas starring black actors in prominent roles like Lloyd Haynes as a high school history teacher, and Denise Nicholas as a guidance counselor at the school in “Room 222.” Plus Jason Bernard, then another unrelated actor, Ed Bernard, as the principal of an inner-city high school, and Joan Pringle as the vice principal in that first U.S. TV show with a predominantly African-American cast, “The White Shadow.”
And, oh, the inklings of black girl magic first portrayed on American TV! Diahann Carroll as a widowed single mother also holding it down working as a nurse at a major aerospace company on the weekly “Julia” series. Teresa Graves letting the bad guy know, “You under arrest, sugar,” as an undercover detective on TV in “Get Christie Love.” Dare I mention the eventual stolen glimpses of Pam Grier wreaking havoc on villains as Foxy Brown, or Tamara Dobson as undercover special U.S. agent Cleopatra Jones intended for viewers well beyond my age?
In time, my blossoming personal tastes had me hooked on TV shows featuring emerging hotties like Michael Warren in “Hill Street Blues” and Denzel Washington in “St. Elmo’s Fire.” And the varied facets of the African-American experience from the likes of “Amen,” “Sister, Sister,” “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World,” “227,” and “Frank’s Place.” All reinforcing for me that black people were a beautifully diverse and vibrant presence in everything from The Church to the sciences, education to the arts, commerce to the community, and so on. And helps to explain how I ended up following in my parents’ footsteps to attend an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities), heading to Washington, D.C., after my high school graduation to earn a degree in print journalism from Howard University.
-Looking back, I’m not proud of this. But as a student at Howard I secretly disdained the fine arts majors at the school. You know, those so misguided as to spend four years and their parents’ hard-earned money to study acting and music and dancing. Only to graduate to, well, become part of the wait and dishwashing staff at some restaurant. At least, that was my narrow perception back then of the likelihood of carving out a viable living in the arts.
So much for Roberta Flack. Ossie Davis. Roxie Roker. Donny Hathaway. Debbie Allen. Phylicia Rashad. Lynn Whitfield. Richard Smallwood. Chadwick Boseman et al. And those are just some who come to mind who also happen to be Howard alumni. And managed to translate their degrees into stellar entertainment careers.
But I guess I’m more like my father, quite the accomplished singer back in his day, than I often realize when it comes to being practical. I mean, I grew up on the arts. Have always loved them. But I also felt the need for a steady paycheck, health and retirement plan, and two weeks’ paid vacation when it first came to making my own way in the world. And make no mistake. The hustle can be very real pursuing a career as a creative professional. Success, whether measured by fame or wealth or both, is in no way guaranteed.
Still, the journey of the committed artist can be gratifying beyond human comprehension. Not to mention far from boring. And, yes, with enough diligence and healthy networking and discipline (yes, I said that) and continuous honing of one’s craft, even lucrative. Which helps to keep me going from moment to moment, day to day.
-Believe it or not, stardom is not my goal in wanting to reach audiences, the bigger and more varied the better. It never has been. No, really.
Far more appealing to me is the chance to share stories that explore the many facets of the human experience. And, ultimately, touch lives in doing so. There’s a scripture from the Old Testament in the Bible that I was drawn to when I believe God first called me from a career, as a journalist, to what I’m convinced is my true calling in life. It’s found in Habakkuk 2:2: “…Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.”
And that is what I hope to do with what I convey artistically. Encourage anyone, anywhere, at whatever point in life he or she may be in, to run the course before you. With conviction. And integrity. And determination to get to the other side. And if you happen to have fallen, get back up to run again. There are others who desperately need you to get to where they are, who need what you have to offer.
-Actually, over the years I’ve found that the biggest challenges I’ve faced, both professionally and just in everyday life, haven’t been so much because of my gender. But more so because of my race.
Now, I’m long from the student militancy unleashed in me during my Howard days. But no so much that it has escaped me that more than 150 years have elapsed since the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution repealed the federal compromise my birthplace was founded on that declared black people as only three-fifths human. Or some 50 years since the Civil Rights movement waged to exact full equal rights for black people in this country at last, martyring unwitting heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Detroit housewife Viola Gregg Liuzzo and, yes, 14-year-old Emmett Till in the process. Yet in this present day, a black man or woman still can be shot dead in the prime of his or her life for being in the wrong place — at home chilling — at the wrong time — whenever. By morally derelict individuals of another color who have been employed to protect and serve law-abiding citizens, no less. Making it still very necessary for the street rallies and social media campaigns and T-shirts to remind people, in fact, let them know in the first place that black lives matter.
-As a woman and artist of faith, I have to say that I’m very encouraged by the increasing selection of high quality, faith-based creative content that has become available to the public in recent years. Whether this be reflected in music or movies or literature or TV shows or what have you, works that speak to the soul, as well as the mind, seem to be finding more and more of a voice amid the mainstream.
It hasn’t been easy to get to this point. I mean, just because the United States was founded on Christian principles people still try to say that it’s a Christian nation. But a look at current statistics reveal a contrasting reality. Such as the fact that nearly a third of Americans describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” when it comes to any religious affiliation whatsoever. Hone in on young adults between the ages of 18 and 29, and the number who attend church occasionally, if at all, looms at a staggering 72 percent.
So to have the likes of openly Christian individuals like rap artist Lecrae, actors Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington, pop and R&B singer Justin Bieber, HGTV network veterans Chip and Joanna Gaines, singing couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and director John Woo be household names is no small feat. But I don’t care what anyone claims. At the end of the day, humans will always have a spiritual self that needs to be attended to. Just like they have a physical appetite that needs to be satisfied, or they starve to death. I mean, there’s a reason why those weekly Kanye West Sunday Services are packed with thousands of people week after week.
-I consider all creative work that comes my way as I do pretty much anything in life. Is it compelling? Meaning whether comedic or dramatic, is it actually saying something? Something I can get behind and support without compromising who I am creatively and spiritually? And, quite candidly, will I go broke helping to tell this story. (Because at the end of the day, who wants to do that?)
-In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not sure how well I actually balance my private and professional lives. Probably because it’s all one big blur to me at this point. Who has time to distinguish between the two?
What I can say categorically is that my son grew up hanging out in the church nursery as a baby while I rehearsed with the praise team and choir at the church we attended while living in New Jersey. Then, as he got older, on the sets of the independent short films I have produced. All while he played soccer and basketball and volleyball and football after school. And took swimming and art classes. As a Cub Scout, then a Boy Scout.
By the time he was old enough, I had him helping out as a stagehand for the theater projects I’ve helped to produce. And, yes, even dragged him to auditions. Plus had the poor guy read and critique some of my plays as I’m writing them. (They say people are their own worst critics. As someone who has raised a teenager, I beg to differ.)
Given all this, my son doesn’t seem to have been too traumatized. He did, after all, graduate from high school with honors and multiple scholarship offers. One scholarship that allowed him to study computer-aided design before his current pursuit of a degree in mechanical engineering. Looking back, I can say it was all a piece of cake! Just kidding, of course.
Bringing a child into the world and making the commitment to do whatever you can to raise him to be a productive citizen has to be the most daunting challenge that a mere mortal can take on. And I’m not sure that any victories we’ve achieved as a family has had so much to do with balance, as resilience and flexibility. On both the part of me and my son. Who, incidentally (and I realize I’m biased), is pretty incredible.
-Currently, I’m endeavoring to get my debut stage play THE WHORE OF SHOMRON: A LOVE STORY fully produced. This is a modern take on an ancient biblical narrative of God’s love for humanity that I first wrote nearly 20 years ago. And, since revamping and even renaming the play in recent years, have had select scenes performed annually thanks to a development group I co-founded called The Detroit Playwrights’ Lab. The Dearborn Area Theatre Association has also featured “Shomron” at their Random Acts of Theatre. This past spring and summer, audiences got to see some of this production at the Detroit Heritage Theatre Festival; at BoxFest Detroit, a festival for women directors, and at Detroit Fringe Fest. They got to see a staged reading of the entire play at Meadow Brook Theatre.
Now I’m finishing up a rewrite of REASON FOR THE SEASON, a two-act Christmas production that I was asked to come up with shortly after completing the original version of “The Whore of Shomron.” In 2020 I plan to overhaul a third play I’ve written. And, finally begin a totally new work looking at the life of a famous Detroit musician.
Beyond theater, one of the projects that I’m most excited about, and in search of a publishing deal for, is a memoir I’m working on with a young West African woman who became a victim of human trafficking after being smuggled to the United States as a girl.
“This article is dedicated to the memory of Angela G. King’s mother, Odester King,
January 4, 1943 – November, 12, 2019.”