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Actress and FAMU alum T’Keyah Crystal Keymah returns to her roots

The actress has become the university’s first artist-in-residence

She acts. She writes. She produces and directs. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anything T’Keyah Crystal Keymah hasn’t done in her career, but the esteemed actress has added yet another exciting venture to her résumé.

In early August, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) announced that Keymah will become the university’s first W.K. Kellogg Foundation artist-in-residence in the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities theater program.

“Me being here at FAM was a dream of mine, and I am very excited,” Keymah said. “One of the administrators said, ‘You just seem so happy,’ and I said, ‘Oh, you have no idea. I am so happy.’ She said, ‘I have to take a picture of you smiling before the students get here.’ They’re making such a fuss over it, and online people are making such a fuss over it, and it made me think, a lot of working actors went to HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]. I’m really hoping that some of my compatriots will join me, will come not necessarily back to FAM, because a lot of people do come back to FAM — the more the merrier — but our HBCUs need us, and they need us to return. They need us to return with our expertise and with our favor.”

According to Keymah, the specialty program, which is a collaborative effort between the theater and journalism departments, will allow her to teach acting for the camera classes and work closely to train students throughout the semester.

One project is already in the works on campus. Keymah will be directing The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years by playwright Pearl Cleage, which will run from Oct. 25-29 at the FAMU Essential Theatre. The play follows a society of women celebrating the centennial of their organization, which was created after the Emancipation Proclamation. Keymah read the script and immediately knew it was one she’d want to direct.

“I’m a member of a sorority, and we, like most of the older black Greek organizations, have celebrated our centennial,” Keymah said. “It’s such an incredible milestone, especially in this country where black organizations are targeted for destruction and infiltration, to keep something, to keep a tradition going for 100 years. [The play] impressed the heck out of me. … It’s so timely. We are in this as a people, fight with ourselves about who we should be in this turmoil. Some of us are — even with 45 [President Donald Trump] clinging to this dream of a postracial society — while some of us know that if there will ever be such a thing, it’s certainly not now, and is it possible to hold on to decorum when you’re in the middle of a genocide?”

In 1984, Keymah earned her bachelor’s degree from FAMU, the largest historically black university in Florida, and was presented with an honorary doctorate from the university in 2011. In between acting gigs, Keymah visited her alma mater to lecture in the theater department and talk to faculty members about possibly teaching at the university or, at the very least, directing a show on campus. When the opportunity to do so came along, Keymah was more than happy to oblige. Being back at FAMU as an educator is something Keymah is all too familiar with. Shortly after graduating from the university, Keymah returned to her hometown of Chicago and landed a job as a day-to-day substitute teacher for four years.

“I loved it, and I missed it right away as soon as I stopped,” Keymah said. “A lot of the characters for my show were born in those classrooms or on the bus riding with those students and other students and just listening to their stories and their lives. I’m very connected to my experience as a teacher and as it relates to my experience as a performer.”

As luck would have it, Keymah would find another home for the characters she’d created over the years. In the summer of 1989, Keymah auditioned for and shot the pilot episode of In Living Color, a show that is still regarded as one of the best black television shows of all time. At the time, Keymah had no clue the show would be as big as it was. Even in that audition, Keymah was able to carry her characters. But one in particular stood out.

“I have played a lot of characters, and I’ll tell you, the one that I’ve played the most is of my own design. It’s Cryssy, the little girl who I brought to In Living Color from my show Some of My Best Friends. ... Cryssy is both my innocence — she’s emboldened by her innocence; she doesn’t know that it’s inappropriate or displeasing to some to talk about whiteness and blackness with a child’s honesty — and also she’s my favorite because she has the wisdom of a child that sees right through the BS and says, ‘This is what this is.’ She doesn’t know yet to not say it, and so I love that. Cryssy allows me to comment on the world, and so I think I will always love her the most.

“That was one of the pieces that I used at the audition, and although he’s never told me that, I’m thinking that’s probably what convinced Keenan to put me on the show. I think it is. It certainly made it to the pilot, and not a lot of other audition pieces did. … She just follows me around, and so I let her come and play with me whenever I can and I’m on stage.”

Since then, Keymah’s career has afforded her the opportunity to act in various plays, movies and television shows, including The Cosby Show and Disney’s That’s So Raven. Keymah’s most recent project, There’s … Johnny!, is currently seeking a home after NBCUniversal’s comedy streaming service, Seeso, announced it will be shutting down later this year. Besides her artist-in-residence position, Keymah is attached to three films that are in progress.

Although there were years when Keymah took breaks from the limelight, she would never be gone for long. This year, she’s hoping to continue to create and inspire.

“My path is different from a lot of people, and frankly, I’m blessed and favored, very lucky,” Keymah said. “But I think because I’ve been performing since I was a child, it’s beyond a confidence that you must have. You must have a confidence that belies constant and bitter and sometimes cruel rejection, but you have to have a knowledge that your art is necessary. Because if you know that your art is necessary, you will make it come out. You’ll make it come out. When this person doesn’t hire you, you’ll go right to the next person. You’ll create a show. You’ll change courses.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.