What, exactly, does that phrase conjure up for you? Someone you see every week on television? A name above the title on a couple of feature films each year? Or perhaps an actor, teacher and author such as Adilah Barnes, who is a whirlwind of activity, year in and year out.
Adilah may not be a native Angelena, but she is a native Californian, having grown up in a tiny town called Oroville, in the Sacramento Valley. “Oroville is the closest thing to a southern town you can imagine, both in terms of its redneck faction and its gentility. It was a very interesting place in which to grow up and I experienced “the South” without ever leaving California! In my particular neighborhood, it truly was like the proverbial village, where everyone helped raise everyone else’s children.
“In my own family, for example, you had first generation southerners from Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, etc., who had come to the Golden State, looking for a better way of life. But they also brought the best that they could with them from the South, too.”
We wanted to know if Adilah was encouraged in her artistic pursuits as she was growing up, not only by her immediate family, but by her friends and neighbors, as well. After all, acting probably was not the first thing on anyone’s mind in those days.
“The answer to that is ‘No’, Adilah tells us. “I didn’t even know myself that I was going to be an actress until I left home and went away to college. However…when I was 16, I wound up in a summer program at Chico State (College), called Upward Bound. It was for kids who were considered financially ‘disadvantaged’; a 3-summer program, designed to prepare them for college. During my first summer there, I performed in my very first play – I was The Queen in ‘The Ugly Duckling’. Interestingly, it was cast multi-racially, so I began my career with non-traditional casting. My husband was Caucasian with brown hair and eyes; our daughter was a blue-eyed blonde; and her suitor was African-American. As I mention in my book, I referred to us as ‘mix-n-match majesty’!
“You see, my first play exposed me to the idea that anything is possible. We were cast by the director according to who he thought best fit the part and it had nothing whatsoever to do with race. It was truly a wonderful beginning.”
Back at her high school in Oroville, it never occurred to Adilah to become involved in the drama department – and to this day, she isn’t quite sure why. Instead, she became one of the class valedictorians, senior class secretary, Girl of the Month, editor of the school paper, and she joined several service clubs. But she preferred to pursue her acting interests elsewhere.
Perhaps Adilah’s thankfully short bout with petit mal epilepsy affected her self-confidence and belief that she could shine on a public stage. It struck when she was in 5th Grade and lasted through 8th Grade or thereabouts. Very few people have much knowledge of this form of epilepsy, but in Adilah’s case, it manifested itself in sudden trance-like states, which left her not knowing where she had just been. Imagine how frightening that would be for a child. It certainly wouldn’t lend itself to a feeling of security that one could handle a part in a play; this may well have been the root cause of Adilah’s reluctance to participate in school plays.
“By the time I arrived at Upward Bound, my self-esteem was pretty low. But they apparently saw me as a diamond in the rough and they really nurtured me, and cared for me, and encouraged me. I ultimately became a real leader there and transferred what I learned in that wonderful environment to my life in high school.”
Adilah took more acting classes at Chico State the following two summers. After graduating from high school, she went to the University of California Santa Cruz, where she concentrated on acting. As a child, she had always thought she would wind up being an English teacher, but her acting experiences at UCSC, where she also co-founded the Black Magic Theatre Company, became her ‘aha!’ moment, when she decided that acting was the field for her.
Back at home, Adilah’s mother was somewhat surprised by her choice of careers. “She wondered why I would choose a life where the divorce rate is so high and the success rate is so…iffy. Plus, no one in my family had ever even thought about pursuing a career like this. But once I began to be a successful working actor, my mother became my biggest cheerleader. She was incredibly proud of me.”
One of Adilah’s most notable achievements is her highly successful one-woman show, “I Am That I Am, Woman Black”, which has toured throughout the country and to several foreign ones, as well. She explained how it evolved:
“Back in the mid-80s, I was touring the country with the African-American Drama Company, out of San Francisco. We were doing two separate shows in repertory: I was in the version about historical women and the company director was in the one about historical men. He and I would perform these shows at various venues together. There came an occasion when I was sent on the road by myself, for some reason. Well, when they handed me the envelope with the check for that performance, it happened to be unsealed. I opened it up and when I saw the amount of the check, all I could think was ‘Oh, my god. That’s what he gets for me?!’ Comparing it to what he was paying me, I realized I’d better create my own show. So, I did!
“Shortly after moving to L.A. in the early 90s, I happened to notice an ad calling for applications for something called the Window Grant (sorry, but it no longer exists). It was being offered by the Cultural Affairs office of the city. One of the items that was required to be submitted was a letter from some organization stating that, should you receive the grant, they would allow you to perform at their venue. I decided to go after senior citizen centers for two reasons: One, they were being underserved; and two, they would be my least critical audience, which it turned out they were, because they just loved my show.
“Well, after that first grant, I obtained another, so that I could take the show to children’s venues. From that point, it took on a life of its own. My niece joined me and we formed Adilah Barnes Productions, which allowed us to sign on with booking organizations, and they started booking my show anywhere and everywhere. We concentrate on the college circuit. To date, I’ve performed in 41 states and on three continents. I’m trying to maintain enough juice to make it to all 50 states and I only have 9 more to go!”
Financially, touring with her own production has been a tremendous boon to Adilah. “I once participated in a showcase, through the National Association of Campus Activities, that resulted in 38 bookings for my show! Thirty-eight! From one regional showcase! At that point, I thought, ‘Oh, my. If I’m ever going to buy a home, now is the time to do it.’ And so I did. The down payment on my house – the one I still live in – came from my one-woman show. Whenever work might seem a little slow, all I have to do is look around at the four walls that surround me and remind myself (and anyone else within earshot) that it is, indeed, possible to make a living as a performer.
“I point that out (and there’s an entire chapter in my book about touring), because I want other artists to know that it is possible to create your own vehicle and to get that vehicle to serve you, so that you become autonomous. This show has not only empowered me; it has supported me for many years.”
In addition to the financial benefits associated with touring a show such as this, Adilah rejoices in the caliber of students and audience members she has been fortunate enough to meet. “These young people represent our future and I am so impressed, especially during the Q & A sessions that follow the play, by their inquisitiveness and lively interest in the subject matter. Additionally, I have had the wonderful experience of portraying seven African-American women who have contributed greatly to the fabric of our society.” The tour has also, as would be expected, provided Adilah with the opportunity to travel and see parts of the country – and the world! – she might otherwise have missed. In fact, as we write this, she’s making plans to return to Holland for another run of the show, and to conduct workshops and acting classes.
An interesting benefit of portraying these historical figures was revealed when Adilah was cast in “Iron Jawed Angels” on HBO. “When I auditioned for this, I was so prepared for the role of someone like Ida B. Wells, that she was just a natural fit for me. When the booking came through, I really wasn’t surprised, since I had so much experience playing historical African-American figures.”
Adilah is very proud of the Los Angeles Women’s Theater Festival, which she co-founded in 1993. She no longer performs there herself, preferring to leave space for others, since she has the international tours to keep her busy when she isn’t performing on-camera. “We have now produced over 400 solo artists from around the globe. We also have an arm of the festival that sends teaching artists into schools, both during and after school hours, and we’ve served over 3,000 kids thus far.”
Many actors have had the benefit of Adilah Barnes’ teaching. Her classes consist of students at all levels. “For one thing, I have very little time for teaching nowadays, so I can’t spread the work out to too many students. But more importantly, I realized long ago that actors learn from each other. The beginners learn early on that they must strive to keep up with the more advanced students in the room, which can accelerate their learning curve. The ones at “the head of the class”, so to speak, are role models who have to accept the responsibility that goes along with that distinction. I know that some other acting teachers might disagree with that concept, but I have found that this dynamic works for us.”
When asked to share some insights into dos and don’ts that she encounters with various students, Adilah said, “One of the things that I see – perhaps not frequently, but often enough to notice – is people who claim that they want to be working professional actors, yet they do not commit to the responsibility that goes with that. I mean by that studying; keeping their acting chops in shape by using the classroom like a gym for acting; doing their homework, so that their characters are well-shaped; etc. There are those who think that because they have a natural talent, they don’t have to work at it. They apparently don’t understand that they might be limiting themselves to certain kinds of roles because they don’t challenge themselves by doing some hard work.
“I encourage all actors to support each other and attend each others’ performances, be it on stage or on camera, because I believe you can learn a lot by observation. Some actors just don’t get the value in that – they’re of the “it’s all about me” mind-set, not about the craft, not about learning, stretching, growing. Sometimes, actors become comfortable where they are and that’s where they stay.”
Coincidentally, Adilah teaches a class called “So You Want To Come To Hollywood” when she’s on the road. Just as we at HollywoodPassport.net do, Adilah strongly suggests that actors from outside of Hollywood prepare as much as possible before coming here. “Do the research”, she says, “Get a copy of the ‘Working Actor’s Guide’, which is like the bible for actors, and ‘The Agencies’, which lists all of the L.A. agents and their specialties. Also be sure, before coming, that your instrument is well-oiled and that you’ve gone as far as you can go in your particular home town. You may be living in a place that doesn’t offer anything in the way of on-camera work or even training, but your stage work counts for a lot. Make sure your resume reflects all of that hard work. If you’re lucky enough to know someone who is already pursuing an acting career here, ask them for their advice and opinions, at least if you trust them.”
If you’re interested in applying to join one of Adilah’s classes, you have a couple of choices: You can go to her website, www.AdilahBarnes.com, where you’ll find more information about the classes; or you can call (818) 679-2086.
You can purchase Adilah Barnes’ lively book, “On My Own Terms” (http://www.onmyownterms.net/), at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/My-Own-Terms-Adilah-Barnes/dp/1425790089
Finally, if you’re a writer yourself and a woman (sorry, fellas), Adilah has created a literary retreat in Atlanta, called The Writer’s Well. “We provide a very serene and inspirational environment for women writers. There is information about that on my website, too.”
Adilah Barnes. Working actor.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, 4/27/09, Adilah will be in Washington, D.C., as an invited guest, as the White House unveils a tribute to Sojourner Truth, one of the historical women Adilah portrays in “I Am That I Am, Woman Black”. For more on this, click here: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-artislane28-2009apr28,0,4818660.story