On a Role

Story by Rob Weinert-Kendt | Photos by Kim Leeson

It was a question that used to be asked about students of color attending drama school: While it might be edifying for them to study Shakespeare and other classics of the Western canon, how would such work equip them for theatre and film careers that would likely be limited to small and/or stereotypical roles?

“I got a good, solid foundation in all types of styles at SMU, but would I be able to use all that in my career as an African American woman?” is how Regina Taylor (B.F.A. Theatre ’81) phrased the question she would sometimes hear, and occasionally wonder herself, as she tackled European classics in the theatre program at Meadows School of the Arts in the late 1970s. Still, as Taylor recalled recently over lunch, she was “very diligent in those classes.” It paid off: When a casting director from New York City’s Public Theatre, Rosemarie Tichler, spotted her while visiting a workshop at SMU, Taylor was ready to tackle the range of work that would become available at Joseph Papp’s groundbreaking New York Shakespeare Festival. While her first gig in New York was understudying Alfre Woodard in David Hare’s A Map of the World, her real break was becoming part of a classical company, headed by the acting powerhouse Estelle Parsons, which would mount three Shakespeare plays in repertory on Broadway in 1986-87: As You Like It, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. In the latter production, Taylor made history as the first black Juliet on Broadway.

The way she remembers it, she landed that plum role by dint of sheer hard work – on a single line of dialogue. She had been cast as Celia in As You Like It and as a witch in Macbeth, but in Romeo and Juliet she initially had no more than an obscure part as a musician with one line, which is still stuck in Taylor’s memory: “Hang him, Jack! Come, we’ll in here, tarry for the mourners and stay dinner.”

Regina Taylor as Lilly Harper in I’ll Fly Away

How on earth does she still remember the line?

“Because I rehearsed it really hard,” Taylor said with a laugh. “At some point, Mr. Joseph Papp was up in the catwalk – he would like to look in on rehearsals sometimes from above, and you could smell his cigar, so you knew he was around. I was staying after rehearsal, rehearsing my line in various ways. ‘Hang him, Jack.’ ‘Hang him, Jack.’ ‘Hang him, Jack.’ I was very committed to everything I did. And then the next thing I knew I was being asked to do Juliet.”

This is the story of Taylor’s illustrious career as an actor, playwright and director in a nutshell. As the saying goes: Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Certainly Taylor has been the beneficiary of her share of right-place, right-time good fortune, but in each case she was fully equipped to seize the moment. And the preparation began as far back as her memory takes her.

“I remember being maybe four years old, on the floor with construction paper and scissors and crayons, creating my own children’s books,” Taylor recalled. The location: her home in “the projects” south of the Trinity River in West Dallas. Watching over and spurring on Regina’s youthful creativity was Leannell Taylor, a Social Security administrator, part-time poet and single mom, whom her daughter remembers as “a very bright woman, very artistic, a beautiful writer. She was the one who introduced me to the arts, took me to the symphony, took me to museums. Whatever was available in Dallas, Texas.” Both by example and by outright encouragement, Taylor said, her mother introduced her not only to the appreciation of art but also to the creation of it.

“This was, I think, one of the greatest gifts she gave me,” Taylor said with feeling. “The process of writing, which is first to dream, and then to roll up your sleeves with some hard work, imagination, strategy, navigating through, ‘How do you make the dreams concrete?’”
In case the point wasn’t clear, Taylor’s mother told her from a young age, “This is a survival tool for you in this world.”

I fell in love with acting in the same way that I loved writing. You submerge yourself into other people’s cultures, their skin.

Writing remained young Regina’s main interest for some time: While in high school at L.G. Pinkston, she participated in an extracurricular program that took her to the Dallas Morning News newsroom to learn about the trade, and it was as a journalism major that she entered SMU. But then one day her counselor, Charley Helfert, who was also a theatre professor, suggested she take an acting class as “an easy credit.” John Stefano was her acting teacher, and everything changed.

Regina Taylor wins a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in I’ll Fly Away

“I fell in love with acting in the same way that I loved writing,” Taylor said. “You submerge yourself into other people’s cultures, their skin. You can time travel. There’s great freedom, and there’s an opening in terms of learning about the essential human nature, the human condition. And you come back from these worlds hopefully expanded in your own world a little.” Indeed, acting fairly exploded the world of the quiet, bookish Taylor, who by her own account was shy and had a bit of a stutter, and who had been drawn to writing because “you didn’t have to put yourself front and center and speak in front of other people.” Acting, she found, “really opened me up in that way, through other characters, to be able to claim myself in a different way.”

Bringing these two sides together was a summer class she took while still at SMU with the great Irma P. Hall, an actor/writer who helped her “look at the world through the avenue” of both creating and interpreting, writing and acting. Taylor would soon have the chance to act alongside Hall in a TV movie, Crisis at Central High, about the Little Rock Nine, the civil rights pioneers who integrated an Arkansas high school in 1957, but the story of how she got the role was, much like her later casting as Juliet, a mix of serendipity and pluck.

“I was in the theatre department when they were doing The Oldest Living Graduate, and Henry Fonda was star- ring in it for a live telecast from the Meadows School of the Arts,” Taylor recalled. “I was quite a huge fan – I loved his Westerns, and really all his work – so I was stalking him down the hallway, too shy to go over and say hello. And this agent, Peggy Taylor, saw me and said, ‘Are you an actress?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ And she said, ‘There’s this audition this weekend off the freeway at Motel 6. Can you go?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So I typed up a fake resume and I had my cousin take a Polaroid picture, and I took my biggest cousin to this audition.”

She got the role the same year she graduated. Soon after she relocated to New York to work in theatre and television, eventually scoring the part that would make her famous, that of the Southern maid Lilly Harper in the NBC drama I’ll Fly Away. It ran for three seasons in the early 1990s and earned Taylor a Golden Globe Award for best actress.

Taylor feels that the role gave her a chance to “demystify the myth of the ‘mammy’ as we’ve seen it over the years, from having her be not very deeply layered to seeing this woman with her own mind. You saw her as this black woman in this white household, then followed her back home to her own community, with the father, with the child, with love interests, and then being someone who is politicized in terms of the civil rights movement. That she had this journey, this multilayered journey, was really rare on national TV.”

The process of writing, which is first to dream, and then to roll up your sleeves with some hard work, imagination … navigating through, ‘How do you make the dreams concrete?’

Oscar winner Kathy Bates ’69 with Regina Taylor ’81 in May 2019. Bates was on campus to speak at the Tate Lecture Series; Taylor interviewed her beforehand in the Bob Hope Lobby for a Meadows 50th anniversary podcast.

It was in the mid-1990s that she also emerged as a playwright, with works produced at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where she has been an artistic associate for 25 years and remains their most-produced playwright. She was later named a Residency Five playwright at the Signature Theatre in New York City as well. Her breakthrough stage works at the Goodman were a pair of plays with music: Oo-Bla-Dee, about a black female jazz ensemble in the post-World War II Midwest, which premiered in 2000 and recently had a revival at Red Bank, N.J.’s Two River Theater; and Crowns, commissioned in 2002 by Emily Mann, artistic director of Princeton, N.J.’s McCarter Theatre Center. Based on a coffee-table book of the same name by photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry, Taylor’s play – a popular fixture of regional theatre that is among the most-produced works licensed by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.–is a celebration of “hat queens,” African American church ladies who adorn their heads for spiritual as much as sartorial reasons.

It was a project that took Taylor back to the source of her creativity: her Dallas home. There she and her mother spent a long afternoon going through her mother’s hat collection – three shelves’ worth, as Taylor recalled it and rehearsing the story of each. “Cupped under the brim of each hat,” Taylor said, was an individual story of when each hat was bought and worn, and for whose wedding or funeral or baptism. It was a profound day, in Taylor’s recounting, of shared storytelling, in a household with no shortage of narrative potential.

And it kept on giving. It was in the years after her mother’s death in 2006 that Taylor embarked on possibly her most ambitious playwriting project to date, a trilogy under the title The Trinity River Plays, which comprises Jar Fly, Rain and Ghoststory, and which premiered in 2011 at the Goodman and Dallas Theater Center. Dealing in part with the illness and death of a fictional matriarch, cared for by a fictional daughter, the plays are clearly close to home for Taylor. She followed those with another Dallas-based play, Bread, set in South Oak Cliff, which premiered at WaterTower Theatre in 2018. While she disavows the term “autobiographical” for any of her work, she does concede that her late mother “lives throughout all of my work, each and every word, everything that I’ve written. She lives in that because she taught me how to write.”

Regina Taylor ’81 conducts a table reading of her play Magnolia with Meadows students and other actors in February 2017.

The late Leannell Taylor may also have helped teach her daughter how to see. Asked for memories of her Dallas childhood, Regina recalls the big Texas sky and the sense of possibility, the endless horizons, that it seemed to promise. And while she remembers that a highlight of her early theatre-going was a production of The Music Man (“Oh, so magical,” she said), seeing Diahann Carroll in the late- ’60s TV show Julia may have made an even larger impact.

“I recall as a child just being so impressed that you had a black woman, a leading woman, who had a strong story line with a career, a personal life, with dimension,” said Taylor. “That was fascinating to me.” And not just to her: She said that in those days, “whenever you saw a black person on TV, we would call up and down in our neighborhood, and people would gather around the TV, because there’s a black person representing us.”

By contrast, these days one could argue that there’s a veritable explosion of black-authored, black-centered work onstage, in film, on television and in music. But if there is such a flowering, it’s in large part because actors and writers like Taylor and her favorite colleagues, including Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, planted the seeds. After all, enacting civil rights stories, as she’s done at various points throughout her career, isn’t just make-believe for Taylor, who first attended all-black elementary schools in Texas, then for a time lived with her mom in Muskogee, Oklahoma, “around the time they started integrating the school system there. That was kind of rough.” Later, when they’d moved back to Texas, her mother had the unenviable task of integrating Social Security offices there. “So she taught me a lot about fortitude in terms of integrating certain institutions. I would later do the same thing.”

One mustn’t forget that the name Regina means “queen.” Said Taylor, “That was very intentional.”