TWU alumna back where her theater career began
Nov. 28, 2023 – DENTON – When vickie washington graduated from Texas Woman's University in 1975, she came away with a degree from what was then a small, generalist theater program that had nonetheless imparted a vital principle about what it took to make it in the world of the stage.
She has returned to TWU to find new faces and facades – new students, new teachers, some new buildings, some buildings updated. A bigger campus. But that decades-old ideal remains.
"One of the things that I am pretty adamant about as it relates to theater is what I learned here," said washington, who prefers her name lowercase. "It's what I taught at Booker T (Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas), what I know from many students and my own children. It's the importance of study.
"I get frustrated when I see work that feels as though it is not fully informed and sometimes not fully formed because someone believes that it's okay for it to be this," she said. "I see that too much in theater. You can't get by with that in music, in theater, visual art, in the performing arts. The reality is, everybody thinks they can do theater. Everybody can do bad theater. Not everybody can do good theater."
washington is back at TWU to direct Recommended Reading for Girls, which will be performed Nov. 29-Dec. 3 at Redbud Theater. It's the second show of the 2023-24 season and washington's first time to direct at her alma mater since 2014.
"It's really something, coming on campus and seeing the places I know," washington said. "Then seeing the students and where they are in their journey, and knowing that the program is still making sense and making a way."
washington is a major figure in the North Texas stage community: director, actor, producer, acting coach and teacher. KERA News called her a "Dallas theater icon," KERA's Art & Seek called her "a foundation in North Texas theater" and Dallas Observer named her named best theater director in 2015.
Her directing credits include Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…, The Mountaintop, The Great Lonely Roamer, Schoolgirls; or the African Mean Girls Play, Last Stop on Market Street, Mississippi Goddamn, Harriet Jacobs, Fences, Solstice: a New Holiday Adventure, Passing Strange, The Ballad of Jane Elkins, Single Black Female, Sunset Baby, Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, Fabulation, Angela’s Mixtape, Speech and Debate, and The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show.
Her film and TV appearances include HBO's Random Acts of Flyness and indie films They Charge for the Sun, Swimming in Your Skin Again and Steps of Faith, and stage performances include A Raisin in the Sun, Dreaming Emmett, Primer for a Failed Superpower, Crowns, …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, for colored girls…, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Piano Lesson, Contribution, and From the Mississippi Delta.
She has received two Irma P. Hall Black Theatre Awards, is founder and producing director of r. t. w. ~ reading the writers, a readers theatre performance organization.
So when she talks, it's a real good idea to listen.
"I tell people when I start working on a project, especially with younger folk, we're all good," washington said. "It's good work. You're doing good work. But good is not what I'm aiming for. I'm aiming for work that transforms, that offers opportunity for transformation. I believe theater saves lives. I think you come and you see a show, something you think is just going to be whatever, something maybe innocuous. But there's something in there, even if it just helps you to go another day."
washington, originally from Dallas, planned to attend college at either Antioch College (in Ohio) or washington U. She was accepted to both but couldn't afford the expense.
"I wanted to be a social worker and save the world," she said. "My cousin graduated from TWU in social work, and so she said I should come to TWU. It was a really good place for me. I learned a lot and got to do a lot of things that perhaps I wouldn't have gotten to do at other places."
Her plans, however, changed again while registering for classes.
"Registration took place at big, eight-foot wooden tables, each department spread out over this space," she said. "I needed one more credit hour. I was there to register for sociology, and right next to sociology was speech. I had done theater in high school. So I went to that table and said, 'Hi, do you all have a class in movement for the theater?' My high school teacher had said, you should take a class in movement for the theater. They said, 'No, but we do have an intro to theater. That's a one-hour course.' So I registered for that, and from that time on I spent all my time in the theater because again, it was right. So I'm using theater to do my social work. Yeah, saving the world."
After graduating, washington began her career with Sojourn Truth players in Fort Worth under the direction of Curtis King, founder and director of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas. A few years later, washington co-founded her own theater company, and increasing the opportunities for Black performers remains a motivation for washington.
"We wanted to do the work we wanted to do, and major and mainstage theaters weren't necessarily doing that," she said.
Like most stage performers, washington had ambitions of going to Broadway after obtaining her union card. Those plans, however, changed when she met and married Norvis Nance.
"When I got my union card, Norvis and I were already together and I was pregnant, so we weren't going to New York."
Instead, she continued her theater career locally while raising four children, all of whom are working artists.
"Paying most of their bills and relatively sane. They all love what they're doing."
And washington loves working with kids, whether her own or her students.
"It's very rewarding," she said. "The major difference is expectation. There is a level of expectation when I'm directing in a professional house. One of the major differences in educational institutions is you have a longer rehearsal period. Professionally, if you've got three weeks, you better be happy. With professionals, this is what they do. We're rehearsing six, seven hours a day. We're committed to the time together, and we have time to explore in that way. But in a small professional theater, you're rehearsing at night and people are still working during the day because you can't really make a living just doing only that. So the expectations are different."
Different expectations from the students as well.
"I don't know if it would be this way with a faculty member, but students are kind of expecting you to tell them what you want them to do, as opposed to in a professional setting, an actor comes to act. In an educational setting, there are things I recognize that they may not know yet, or they don't know it in the context of being in a setting outside of college."
While the majority of TWU productions are directed by faculty, the department regularly exposes students to professionals, like last year's Bull in a China Shop directed by guest director Susan Carol Davis.
This year's guest-directed play is Recommended Reading for Girls, about a woman who returns home to care for her ailing mother only to find that her home has been mysteriously taken over by characters from her favorite childhood novels: Sara Crewe from A Little Princess, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, Heidi from Heidi and Penny Parker, a detective based on the character of Nancy Drew.
"These literary figures have come on a mission to help the mother," washington said. "It's delightful. And I've been thinking of it as a bit of a Trojan horse because it feels light and fluffy and frothy, but I love the way that she deals with some real issues. She talks about, of course, the possibility of loss. She talks about holding on to your story, telling the importance of stories, telling your story and not losing your story. Because especially as women, oftentimes our stories get subsumed societally, we are told that our stories may not matter as much as others, other genders for sure. This is your story. You tell your story, and how you can always come home again, and you can hold on to your story and be your soul self.
"Which is one of the reasons I think it's a really great choice for TWU," washington added. "It's well written, it has great roles for women and it reminds women of our strength, our importance, our ability to tell our own story, to not let it be told by someone else, and to not lose sight of who we are and what we can do."
After Recommended Reading for Girls, washington has a full slate in 2024. Next spring, she will do a five-day workshop in New York for a production of Blood Work by Kristen Adele Calhoun for the National Black Theater. In summer, she'll direct Responders by Joseph Ford ("Oh, I love this piece") for Theater Squared in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In August, she'll direct a reading of A Seat of the Table by Regina Taylor, about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who risked her life to register black voters in the segregated South.
"It'll be done in Mississippi, near Fannie Lou Hamer's hometown, and they're making inroads to have her granddaughter present," washington said. "I'm really excited."
Recommended Reading for Girls
Wednesday, Nov. 29-Friday, Dec. 1, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 2, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 3, 2 p.m.
$10 for adults, including TWU faculty and staff.
$5 for students, children and senior citizens.
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Page last updated 3:24 PM, November 27, 2023