By Pretty Shongwe | Urban Agenda
The bright ceiling lights were flickering on and off in the small, chilly auditorium when a man with salt-and-pepper hair walked in carrying a brown paper Panera bag.
The visitor was Wali Jamal, an African-American actor, playwright and journalist. From the moment he began to speak to workshop students, everyone’s eyes were fixed on him. It wasn’t the way he dressed that made him so enchanting, but the way he danced around the stage and manipulated his voice to sound like various characters in a play. He didn’t have to say that acting is his greatest passion — he showed it.
“If you love what you do, it’s not work,” he said with a soft smile.
During the interview, Jamal brilliantly slid into the skin of King Hedley from August Wilson’s play “Seven Guitars.” He glided confidently across the stage in a manner that suddenly had everyone sitting up and focusing on him.
He shared a monologue from the show, in which the Hedley tells a listener why his father gave him the name King. There was a tangible change in Jamal’s posture and voice when he began the piece, juxtaposing the pride and shame Hedley felt. Fully in character, the actor recounted the tale of jazz legend “King” Buddy Bolden and his beautiful trumpet-playing with wonder and passion, then went on to effortlessly express his anger, wounded honor and optimism.
Jamal talked about other productions in which he performed, such as vintage radio productions of “Night of the Living Dead” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Displaying a range of acting skills, he went from bursting into the voice of a squeaky 7-year-old boy to a nagging old man to the sound of a helicopter.
Lately, Jamal has been studying his lines for “Seven Guitars” by Wilson, one of his greatest inspirations. The tragicomedy, which won a Tony Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, will be performed at Wilson’s childhood home at 1727 Bedford Ave. in Pittsburgh.
Jamal has performed in nine of the 10 Wilson plays famously known as “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”
Jamal grew up in public housing and attended a Catholic elementary school on Pittsburgh’s South Side, where he was the only black student. Back at home, other black kids often told him he was trying to be white. It became a burden that weighed on his heart.
“Don’t worry about fitting in; worry about being successful,” he said. “Learn to speak English properly to become successful. Ignore people who say otherwise.”
Jamal said he has been acting for as long as he can remember. In the seventh grade, he took the first step in his career by starring in the play “The Invisible Man” by H.G Wells.
Growing up, some of his biggest inspirations were Martin Delaney, John Travolta and Wilson. Jamal met Wilson and did a read-through of Wilson’s play “Jitney.” At the read-through, Wilson gave him some advice that still helps him: “Write what you know, and what you don’t know, research.”
Early in his career, Jamal said, it was difficult finding someone like himself in theater. He described struggles as a black actor and how a lack of opportunity for diverse roles often limited him to roles such as slaves or butlers.
“Anyone black wakes up acknowledging their color,” he said.
He explained that the theater world’s affinity for classics and traditional works leaves very few roles for black people outside of black production companies, roles that often are stereotypical and demeaning. He somberly recounted a time he played Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a role that “traumatized” him but was also a learning experience.
With the passage of time and more productions such as the award-winning musical “Hamilton,” he said, more non-stereotypical roles for black people have become available.
Because being a theatrical actor usually is not a job that can be solely relied on financially, Jamal also supports himself as a builder and electrician.
“Make sure you have something to depend on,” he advised. “Theater is a very fickle and cruel profession. You often spend more than you make.”
Asked why he remained in the profession, he jokingly replied: “Because I’m an idiot.”
Jamal writes plays and is seeking a grant for one, “Tookie’s Games.” Based on a true story, it’s about an Aliquippa martial arts master whose father challenges him to a battle to the death. When the man won the battle and kills his father, he is put on trial for murder. A black lawyer, George “Tookie” James, represented him in court and won the case.
Jamal also is in the process of republishing a book written in 1852 by Delaney titled “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered.” It is about life for African-Americans during that time.
At the end of the interview, Jamal smiled broadly and thanked students for treating him “like someone important.” He then reached into the crumpled Panera bag and handed out fliers for his upcoming show.
(Taylor Szczepaniuk and Ahmari Anthony contributed to this report.)