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Howard University’s Isaiah Washington

The actor had a short but substantial and nontraditional HBCU experience

Actor Isaiah Washington hardly had a typical experience as a student at Howard University. He spent one semester there in 1986, living out of his Chevy Spectrum, studying acting. At age 23, he’d already lived more of an adult life than his fellow undergraduates. Inspired after reading about actor Ossie Davis and the Howard Players repertory, he landed in Washington, D.C., after putting his previous life in Florida in the rearview. Washington left behind a wife, four years in the military (specializing in aerospace engineering), and threw himself into acting and the anti-apartheid movement. Besides studying under professor Vera Katz at Howard, Washington was influenced by artists in several different D.C.-area theater companies, including actor Clayton LeBouef and writer-director Dianne Houston.

The nation’s capital in 1986 languished in the crack epidemic, and was practically unrecognizable compared with D.C.’s present-day wonkish cosmopolitanism. “I remember walking down 14th Street before it became what it is,” said Washington. “It was the worst area … Death was around every corner … All there was, was talk of … teenagers being impregnated. It was like the end of the world.” Washington pledged a creative fraternity called Artists of Dionysus after facing painful rejections from two fraternities. One, he said, wanted him to “take a paper bag test, and put an S-curl in [his] head” while the other demanded to know if he had an American Express card. Washington, 53, currently plays Thelonious Jaha on The CW post-apocalyptic drama The 100. He’s also author of A Man from Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life. He looks back.

Once I realized I was splitting my time from the Sanctuary Theater, and D.C. Space, and George Washington University’s basement theater programs, I found myself quickly ready to make a move. I was like a year short of graduating. … I ran out of money, and, you know, tried to take side jobs here and there, up and down Georgia Avenue, at the Ibex [go-go club], working there, doing whatever I could. Odd jobs, moving people out of their homes, offices … whatever I could get. But just could not afford to remain, and could not qualify for any funding. I had promised the military, when I got out, that I was going to … get a history degree, then go back in and fly F-16s so I could drop bombs on people. I’m so glad I did not do that. I’m glad I got lost in the sauce, and found myself … auditing Vera Katz’s acting classes, and [that] got me inspired to become who I have become. I’m eternally grateful for that experience, eternally grateful for professor Katz, even today. Eternally grateful that I didn’t fall apart because I couldn’t be a Greek … and decided I was going to get my revenge by being successful. Here we are. That’s my HBCU [historically black college and university] experience.

“I had proven that Denzel was not the only leading man.”

I decided I was going to take this broad nose, these full lips, and this dark skin, and prove to all of those Greeks … and all those beautiful light-skinned, long-haired, wealthy women that looked like Phylicia Rashad, that had no interest in me — I was going to make this dark-skinned man one of the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most respected actors I could become. I succeeded at that goal in 2007, almost exactly, what, 20 years. June 7, 2007, I was catapulted off [Grey’s Anatomy] for many reasons people think, but to me, I had done my job. I had proven that I had value. I had proven that Denzel was not the only leading man. I had proven to myself and the world that I could play a role at the height of my intellect … That’s why I became an actor. My activism really was the trickery. I had to become an actor because I was angry. I was disappointed in society. I was disappointed in us. I was tired of this thing called racism, and colorism, and unfairness, and I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to be in projects that would make a lot of noise. That would say something … I’ve always been an activist. Always. I became an actor because I’m an activist. It chose me. Howard chose me because of a book someone gave me, and I read about Ossie Davis and the Howard Players, and although they were not there anymore, I felt the spirit of Ossie Davis. His pan-Africanism, and that really put me on the track of my pan-Africanism … Thank God for my experience one semester. That’s all it took to create who I am, or help create who I am today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.