Veteran Pittsburgh Actor Jamal Offers Insight Into Stage Career

By Kyle Smith and Sean Spencer | Urban Agenda

The man threw off his glasses and morphed into King Hedley. His regular voice transformed into the dialect of an older black male in the 1940s from the Hill District. He was no longer actor Wali Jamal.

Jamal is an African-American actor from Pittsburgh. His path began with performing a role at age 7, sparking his career. He became inspired by actors such as John Travolta, James Earl Jones and Richard Roundtree. Some of the struggles he overcame were learning lines and making sense of the things that he was told, especially when it was uncomfortable or unusual for him.

Later, he became a playwright after receiving simple advice from Pulitzer Prize-winning Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson: “Write what you know … words are free.”

Jamal is inspired by a time period in the 1700s and 1800s that often goes unmentioned in history books, when slaves created the foundation of this country.

“We are in a pretty confused state … (White Americans) teach us their history,” he said.

He went to a Catholic school where he was the only black student. His habit of speaking proper English brought criticism and accusations that he “sounded white.” He noted this problem has persisted for African-Americans throughout American history, dating back to slavery.

“It’s the way this country has molded us,” he said.

Jamal has played roles in nine of the 10 plays in Wilson’s “Century Cycle.” Currently, he is starring in the reenactment of Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” as King Hedley. He’ll soon play a role in a radio production of “Night of the Living Dead.”

Mark Clayton Southers and Paul Robeson are among the actors that have given him insight, he said. Southers is a Pittsburgh-based director and producer with extensive experience in plays. Robeson, one of the most famous African-American actors ever, was involved in the civil rights movement, which inspires Jamal.

“Reject education and you reject equality,” he said.

He suggested that young actors starting out must get primary jobs as a foundation to “eat” and essentially do acting as a side job or hobby.

Something that has changed in the acting profession over the years is the diversity of roles for minorities, particularly blacks, he said. More opportunities are appearing for them, he said.

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