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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Actress Addresses Hollywood and Politics

Lisa Gay Hamilton
Lisa Gay Hamilton

Lisa Gay Hamilton has appeared on the movie screen in films like Jackie Brown and Beloved, on the television screen as a cast member on The Practice, and most recently on stage in the Huntington Theatre performance of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. Last week, just days before the start of Gem’s Broadway run, the actor, director, and producer spoke candidly to UMass Boston students on her life, her experiences in show business, her politics, and their intersections. “While I love acting it’s not necessarily the most practical profession to be in – especially as a black woman – especially as a black woman getting older,” she said. “You find that the work gets less and less and less. And, depending upon what your values are and your politics, some work becomes more accessible to you than others. Most of Hollywood is not accessible to me due to my own politics.”

Hamilton’s personal politics are akin to those of her teacher and spiritual guide Beah Richards, she says, whom she describes as a strong-spirited woman who refused to compromise her integrity to further her acting career. Throughout her talk, Hamilton made frequent references to Richards, her mentor, friend, and the subject of her directorial debut documentary. Hamilton chronicles Richards, a veteran African American actress and activist in the HBO documentary, Beah: A Black Woman Speaks. Hamilton grew up in Stony Brook on Long Island, New York and attended NYU drama as well as the Julliard School. After Julliard, Hamilton worked the theatre circuit in New York area, eager to meet the challenges of the genre for women of color and defy the odds. Her work yielded a role on the ABC drama The Practice that she would hold for seven years.

When asked about the types of roles available to the black community, Hamilton called upon Richards, relaying an incident in which her mentor was on stage portraying the part of maid serving a drink to a white person and directed to make the scene funny at her own expense. In response, Beah Richards cleverly spat in the drink before handing it to her co-star.

“It doesn’t matter what the material is,” Hamilton explained. “Your responsibility as an actor is to bring truth to that material.

Dr. Barbara Lewis, director of the Trotter Institute, introduced Hamilton, citing her role in telling Richards’ story as pivotal in promoting the awareness of upcoming generations to the body of accumulated wisdom of past generations and aligning it with the needs of the present. “I feel an incredible responsibility and allegiance to my elders,” says Hamilton. Hamilton said she feels that it is important to preserve the identities of people like Beah Richards so that their knowledge and experiences continue to impact people even after their deaths. “All of grandmothers, great-grandmothers great-uncles and aunts, their stories, should be told and I encourage all of you,” she said. “That is our history, that is who we are.” Perched on a metal chair in the Healey Library basement auditorium, Hamilton relayed her run-ins with David E. Kelley, criticized the lack of leadership in the African American community, exposed the phoniness of Hollywood, and spoke of her craft. With a biting wit and a provocative voice, she relayed the triumphs and challenges of her career and encouraged the student audience to become active participants in not only their given fields, but the world around them. “It is important to participate as political beings in this country that we live in,” said Hamilton following the discussion. “The world that you want to create, that you want to be in, needs you…As human beings we’re born and then we die. What is the legacy you want to leave behind?” Robert Johnson, director of the Africana Studies program, was among those in attendance. “She’s a great role model for our students,” said Johnson. “She’s a person who demonstrates with hard work you can achieve what you want to achieve in all fields.” Susan Alli, a freshman at UMB, agrees. “It was enlightening. I heard some stuff that our community needs to hear…our generation’s suffering and she’s getting the word out,” said Alli. “She really made me think about my life and my aspirations,” added junior Criminal Justice major, Betsy-Lynn Vedrine. Hamilton has cast herself in a role likened to that of the late Richards, adding that her legacy was not only on film but through the wisdom she imparts. Of her commitment to that role, Dr. Lewis said, “That is a very tall order, but it is one that Lisa Gay Hamilton is assuming on stage and off.”Hamilton said she is eager to direct again and happy to have the live, communal experience of theatre. She cites that love of interactivity as the impetus for coming to UMass Boston.

“When I was a college student I always appreciated those speakers who came and spoke to me in an honest way,” Hamilton said following the discussion. “If what I have accomplished inspires someone…I’m grateful for the exchange.”

The event, co-sponsored by the Trotter Institute and the vice chancellor’s Office of Student Affairs, was held in the Media Auditorium on the Lower Level of Healey Library.