Actress Lynn Whitfield talks HU training, ‘citizen’ artistry

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During a break while hosting an acting master class with the students at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, actress Lynn Whitfield spoke to the {AFRO} about her career, the perks of a Howard University education and the importance of being a citizen artist. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

While she may have a Primetime Emmy, Golden Globe nomination and seven NAACP Image Awards, Lynn Whitifield told the AFRO she is a citizen first- an outlook on life that has sparked work as an activist, kept her ever humble and grateful to play real roles with substance and ignited a passion in educating the next generation of “citizen artists,” who care about the world and bring a level of humanity to characters that reverberate across audiences and demographics.  

“I think the responsibility of an artist is to move any kind of art or celebrity out of the way and be what everybody is, and that’s a citizen,” Whitfield told the AFRO in November while she did an almost three-hour workshop with the high school theatre students of Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest, D.C.  “I just really think that all of us are really citizens and as citizens of these United States [we are responsible] to do what we can, to really support our country.”

As a citizen artist, Whitfield serves in action, whether that’s emphasizing the importance of voting in elections or helping uplift Ellington acting students who are now fostering their skills three miles from where much of her formative acting training occurred at Howard University.

Whitfield’s former professor and long-time Howard and Duke Ellington educator, legendary acting teacher and director Vera Katz, is who connected the actress with the local high school.  Katz, who also trained actors such as Phylicia Rashad, Taraji P. Henson and the late, Chadwick Boseman, said that Whitfield coming to work with the Ellington students was an invaluable experience.

Duke Ellington Theatre Department Chair Ken Johnson, echoed the master acting teacher’s sentiments, considering now famous former student, Samira Wiley of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Orange is the New Black,” who was a student when Katz first asked Whitfield to work with the high school students over a decade ago.

Twelve years ago Ms. Whitfield coached Samira Wiley and you could see in her work the beginnings of the amazing career she currently has,” Johnson told the AFRO.  Ms. Whitfield is a Master Artist and her impact upon our students will last for years to come.”

Professor Katz, whose new book is set to release in 2021, is able to keep these long standing relationships with her students long after their graduations, because she not only trains actors, but cares.  Even after leaving the confines of her classroom, Katz continues to follow her students’ careers and give them notes on their performances, a trait Whitfield said was key to her training in the arts.

“I don’t know how many instructors there are and I’ve been out of Howard a long time, but to have a professor still call and give you notes- to give you appreciation, to build you up.  I mean I’m decades out of Howard and Vera has been consistent,” Whitfield said.

However it’s not just Katz who has been consistent, as Howard students work constantly in the industry and have been known to bring quality work to complex, strong Black characters- particularly to biographical films and roles. Boseman had critically-acclaimed performances as Jackie Robinson and James Brown, Henson starred as NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in the Oscar-winning film {Hidden Figures} and Whitfield received a Primetime Emmy for her role as Josephine Baker.  

Whitfield said teachers like Katz plus the Howard education sets the university’s alumni apart from other talented actors of color.

“It’s also being a part of an HBCU and having an appreciation for the importance, the validity, the sustainability of our history, because when you attend the capstone of Black education, you understand what so many people took to build this country, and we step into a really powerful spot, because we were surrounded by it every day. We were looking at it every day.  So there’s no question in my mind about the nobility, the strength, the power of our Black historical figures,” the actress told the AFRO.

However according to Katz and Whitfield, it’s not just historical figures that Howard actors are able to portray.  Howard alumni are able bring a power and gravitas that sticks with audiences after curtains fall or credits roll, such as Whitfield’s portrayal of Lady Mae in the OWN show Greenleaf, which just ended after five seasons.

“Post Greenleaf [life] is so grateful.  I’m grateful that we were able to bring those stories to audiences. I’m grateful that we were able to bring authenticity to it… to bring the truth to characters and I was elated that I was given the freedom and the tools to build a character like Lady Mae- to honor so many women that we know in our lives, and in public lives, and in office, Black women who are strong, who have a commitment to community, who are complex,” Whitfield told the AFRO. “It was great, and the way that the show resonates with people, Lady Mae is going to live on past me.”

However, beyond the roles she plays or the art she continues to make, Whitfield is continuing to push the importance of being a citizen artist, not a celebrity.

 “For me, [activism is] from the position of being a citizen and not the  other “c” word- celebrity,” Whitfield said in November. The actress has been helping to bring awareness to voting in Georgia’s special election. Whitfield made her way to the polls to promote early voting, held an Instagram live discussion about the dynamics of the Senate and Public Service Commissioner races, and continues to post about the importance of the Georgia election.

“Your vote can change the way this country looks and feels,” Whitfield said passionately.