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Climbing Over Racial Barriers, Climbing Back On Stage

Because of racial bias, actor Selmore Haines III left the theater for 30 years. Now, he's back in Jubilee Theatre's one-man show "Thurgood."

by Hady Mawajdeh 23 Feb 2017
Selmore Haines III

The past four years, Selmore Haines III has been acting in plays across North Texas. But more than 30 years ago, he walked away from the stage and found work in financial management. A chance encounter with a friend was all he needed to help him get back into the spotlight. Now he's a leading man at Jubilee Theatre - and he's opening up about how race sidelined his career.

Jump to the Q and A

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

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Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre is tackling the life of Justice Thurgood Marshall. And actor Selmore Haines III is starring in the one-man show. Recently, Art&Seek caught up with Haines to learn more about his own personal journey. Even as Marshall was fighting discrimination, Haines was experiencing it – and it almost kept him from becoming an actor.

Interested in catching Selmore Haines III in “Thurgood?” The show closes this weekend!

On stage, Selmore Haines III is commanding as our first African-American Supreme Court Justice. His deep voice fills the the theater as he shares anecdotes from Thurgood Marshall’s life. The audience is captivated. They laugh uncontrollably the first time they hear Haines discuss Marshall’s lust for the feminine figure and they applaud each time Haines tells them about a victory in the courtroom.

“He’s just like Thurgood,” says a woman from the audience.

“Not very many people know what Thurgood Marshall sounded or looked like,” says Haines. “I think it’s part of the fun for them. They want to learn about this impactful figure, but because his work affected their lives, they sort of feel like they know him.”

The 58-year-old actor says that though a lot of work went into playing Marshall, he didn’t study the former Supreme Court Justice’s speaking voice or mannerisms. He says the show’s director – Harry Parker – told him he didn’t want Haines doing an impersonation.

“I selected Selmore because I connected with him,” says Parker. “I wasn’t worried about whether he spoke like Thurgood Marshall. He’s been really motivated by the material. He respects it and he understands how important it is, so I let him do what he does – act.”

Parker isn’t alone in allowing Haines to do what he’s good at. Raphael Parry, artistic director at Shakespeare Dallas, says Haines has a presence that’s unique and you have to try not to get in his way.

“When I think about Selmore as a performer there’s always this sense of augustness,” says Parry. “He’s got a presence on stage that’s very simple, refined and elegant.”

Parry says that Haines’ elegance was most apparent when he was Alonso, King of Naples, in his company’s version of “The Tempest.”

“There’s a pathos that he has when he’s performing,” says Parry. “I think Selmore is an amazing tragedian. And what makes a special tragedian to me is the ability to have hubris, but also have a bit of vulnerability. It’s what helps audiences identify with a performer.”

Haines first began acting at age six. He was performing at his hometown church in West Palm Beach, Florida. At ten, his family moved to Dallas and he joined the youth acting troupe – the Junior Players.

Then he hit high school. And he was one of just a handful of black students at the exclusive, private academy, Greenhill School in Addison.

“Once I got to high school and was going out for lead roles, my parents told me, ‘Son, they’re never going to put you up against a white girl to be her love interest,” and I didn’t want to believe it,” says Haines.

So he auditioned for several lead roles  — and he didn’t land any of them. That’s why he hatched his own plan to get himself on stage.

“My answer to not ever getting the lead role in high school was the one-man show,” says Haines. “That was my way of saying, ‘Okay. I’m going to show you what I can do.’”

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It worked. He wrote a play for his senior project, called “Color Me Black.” It was about the history of black America. Haines says the school performances were packed. He was invited to perform the show at schools in Dallas and Florida for several years afterward.

But when he studied theater at Austin College in Sherman, Haines went for the secondary roles, instead of leads. And sure enough, he was selected more often. Then he graduated.

“I got an agent. And she started sending me on all of these commercial auditions and television auditions, and I wasn’t getting cast in anything and one director said to me ‘You’re not black enough. You’re questionably black,’” recalls Haines.

But the director didn’t stop there. He explained to Haines that they needed to be judicious about which black actors they hired.

“When we choose a black actor,” the director said, “we’re making a statement. We’re appealing to a certain audience and your skin color doesn’t read clearly black.”

Talk about a double bind. Haines was too black to play the lead but not black enough to make the cast.

He was out of solutions.

“I can’t go into auditions with makeup on that’s three shades darker,”  he says. “And at that point I said, ‘Well, I guess this is not going to be for me.’”

So he went corporate and found work in financial management. And he gave up acting – for 30 years.

But Haines still loved theater, so he directed and wrote plays for the youth organization N.I.A. Kids in Desoto.

Then one day, four years ago, out of nowhere, he got a call.

“And this person, who I did not know, said, ‘Would you like to be in a play with the African American Repertory Theatre?”

Haines was stunned. He told them he would love to, but he had a job with long hours. They assured him it was fine. An old friend whom he had just become reacquainted with had suggested him for the role — and once he returned to the stage he knew this time, he wasn’t going to leave.

 “This is what I want to do and there is less in front of me – time wise – than behind me, so don’t spend the rest of your life frustrated. You can be poor, but at least be happy.” 

Today, after that thirty-year hiatus, Haines is becoming a regular on North Texas stages. And this time, he hasn’t had to write his own show to do it.

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How does being in North Texas affect the production of your art?

Well, I think that the theater world in North Texas is growing so rapidly and that there are so many young artists and playwrights that there are so many new works being produced which is great for actors. New plays mean more work and more opportunities for us. So from that standpoint, I think that living in North Texas provides a great opportunity.

Also, just in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, there are so many thriving theaters that are doing so many unique and unusual works, you know? Not just the typical musicals or comedies, but works that are making statements about what is going on in our society. I’m sure that after this current presidential election that there are going to be a bevy of scripts inspired by that and that there are going to be lots of opportunities to work in this North Texas area.

Selmore, I am aware that you’re no longer working in finance. But I wonder if that means you no longer have a day job in order to pursue this career in acting?

(Laughs) Well, my sister lives here in North Texas and she works for the Dallas Independent School District and one day she asked me if I had ever considered being a driver. And, honestly, I had no idea what she meant. So I asked her and she went on to explain that during the summers she drove for Uber and Lyft, because it was an easy way to make money. So I eventually I tried it and it’s been a good thing. It’s 24/7 work and I can do it when I need to and when I want to – usually when I NEED to, I almost never WANT to (laughs) – but anyway, that’s my secondary subsidy for income, besides acting.

How do you maintain balance in your life?

Well, I am not married. I do not have children. So I spend a lot of time at home. I have learned that an actor – a professional actor – needs to have discipline. Honestly, I knew this, but I guess I am putting it into practice much more than I have in my past. Anyway, you need to have the discipline to use the time you have away from rehearsal to prepare.

I mean obviously you’re not memorizing lines at rehearsal, so you have to make time for that in your own life. But it’s more than that, you need time to develop the character and that happens away from rehearsal. So there’s a discipline needed to apply yourself far beyond the rehearsal process. Rehearsal is when you put all of that stuff you work on when you’re alone together. It’s all about the preparation it takes to get there.

With “Thurgood” I would spend at least four hours getting ready for rehearsals. And then after rehearsals, I would go over everything that didn’t really work right again at home. Being single and living at home makes that easy. There’s no one for me to disturb. No one that I am keeping up at night. I could easily work around the clock.

When did you begin to call yourself an actor?

Actually, I began calling myself an actor one year after I left my corporate job and I started driving for Uber, because people would ask me, ‘Is this your full-time job?’ I would tell them it wasn’t and that I was an actor. And being able to do so was a joyous moment in my life. Especially because I was saying it with confidence. ‘I am an actor.’

After I said it though, people would ask me what I was doing. They wanted to know what shows I was working on and it was amazing to be able to tell them what I was doing. People are always fascinated by that. ‘Oh! Wow! You’re an actor,’ they’d say. ‘Are you going to Hollywood? Are you going to Broadway?’ they’d ask. And I’d say, ‘No. Not right now.’ But being able to tell them that I was an actor just felt so good. And I love saying it now, because I am finally saying ‘I am what I have aspired to be’ and that’s a wonderful thing to be able to say.

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Are you creatively satisfied?

Umm… That’s a yes and no answer. Yes, because I believe the work that I have done has been successfully creative. I am always challenging myself to do more and to do better.

The No portion is that I always see ways that I can improve. At every “Thurgood” performance, I get off the stage during intermission and I say, ‘I should have done this’ or ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I try that?’ And then at the end, I think about the things I could have done differently. But I do that at the end of every show and I think that all actors do that – probably all people do that – but I’m constantly thinking about how I can be better.

What sets you apart or makes you different from other male actors in North Texas?

I’d have to say my life. In the years that I directed children and directed at my church, I discovered a lot about acting and I realized that what makes a great actor or actress – in my opinion – is a person that is believable on stage. And what makes people believable on stage? Well, as you age you’ve lived a life that is full of experiences that are actually written about in scripts. When you’re young there are a lot of things in life that you just haven’t experienced. You don’t know certain pains and sadness’s. You don’t know certain joys. But as you live your life, those certain experiences happen. So you’re able to bring those things to a character or to the stage with believability, because you can clearly relate to it. You’ve been there. You’ve been in that situation or a similar situation. So what do I bring that is different? I bring my life. My life hasn’t been great. There’s been sorrow, grief, hurt, death and so I’ve experienced all of those things. So I can access those moments and bring them to the stage in my own unique way.

The other thing that I bring is years of suppressing what I knew was always inside of me. Whereas some actors may have not needed to do that. I suppressed it. I put acting on the back burner. I would even go as far as to say I let go of it. It was dormant, because during the years I lived and worked in the corporate world, I enjoyed most of it. But I finally got to the point where I didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t want to punch another time sheet or have another conference call or speak to another person about their performance on the job. I didn’t want to sit at the desk anymore.

What has been the biggest challenge in tackling this one-man play?

(Laughs) The lines. I hate to say that, because for the longest time one of the things people have always said to me is ‘how did you learn all of those lines?’ That’s even when I am not doing a one-man show. And I used to kind of think, ‘Well what did you think about my acting?’ (laughs) I didn’t really care that they were impressed with the fact that I memorized the lines. (laughs) I mean don’t get me wrong. The lines were challenging. I just wanted to know what people thought about me. Anyway, the lines were difficult in this show and so was the energy.

The challenge with “Thurgood” is that he tells so many stories and he doesn’t always complete one story before moving on to the next. So he’ll be sharing an anecdote and then he’ll return to talking about a court case. So I had to be hyper focused on the lines and directing my energy. That’s the challenge keeping my mind focused in the right spot.

The thing about a one-man show is that there is no relief. Not only relief for me, but also for the audience. They do not get a break from me and the stories, so it was also really important that I was able to depict the other characters in this play and able to make them believable. So as an actor I have to keep things flowing. I can’t slow down, because the audience will begin to jump ahead or ignore parts of the play.

Was there any hesitation in accepting this role, because of the endurance needed or because of the challenge of being all alone on stage?

No! I guess this is when my ego shows up (laughs). I want to work. That’s what I want to do, so any opportunity I get I am going to pursue. And I knew this was going to be a once in a lifetime experience for me. So I was not hesitant at all. It’s just like any job. When they say ‘you got it,’ you’re just excited for the opportunity. It takes a while for you to realize everything that that going to entail. But luckily, my director helped to build me up and keep me focused on the task at hand.

 

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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