Left to right: Actors and actresses Dondre Whitfield (Queen Sugar), Merle Dandridge (Greenleaf), DeWanda Wise (She’s Gotta Have it), Jessie T. Usher (Survivor’s Remorse), Dawn-Lyen Gardner (Queen Sugar) and Marque Richardson (Dear White People) talk to the audience about their journeys in entertainment


Special to South Florida Times

MIAMI – Each year, patrons of the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) flock to the festival’s signature panel discussions in the hopes of gleaning insider information on how many actors, producers, directors and writers can break into the entertainment industry and how they can maintain their status. This year was no different.

In a panel filled with some of the actors who grace our favorite TV shows featuring casts of color, the audience got to hear about the highs and lows of the entertainment industry from an actor’s perspective.

The featured actors of the “New Faces of TV” panel were: Merle Dandridge (Greenleaf), DeWanda Wise (She’s Gotta Have it), Jessie T. Usher (Survivor’s Remorse), Dawn-Lyen Gardner (Queen Sugar) and Marque Richardson (Dear White People).

New Faces was hosted by Dondre Whitfield (Queen Sugar), who started the panel by saying:

“You may be new faces to some folks, but you’re not.”

He wanted to make sure the audience knew that the actors sitting on the stage may be new household names, but they weren’t new to being acting. Many of them had been acting professionally for over 10 years before they were cast in the roles that gave them their big TV breaks.

His first question was about how the actors on the panel were trained, even though they all received degrees in fields that weren’t necessarily related to acting.

Many of the actors studied drama in high school and fell into acting as a way of having something to do with themselves, like Dandridge and Usher. Others, knew that they wanted to be actors from a very young age and pursued the craft like Wise, Gardner and Richardson, who described his preparation for his craft by saying “life and grit” prepared him for his future as an actor.

From there, the conversation segued into how they decide on roles, with many of the actresses mentioning that they look for roles with meaning and substance.

Some said they often asked themselves what they wanted out of their roles and were constantly being told that they didn’t fit anywhere when it comes to casting. The trouble that casting agents and directors had with the actresses’ looks and overall demeanor, since it didn’t fit into a specific category, became a source of contention for the actresses for many years.

“I took it in for years and it killed my spirit,” said Gardner, a Juilliard trained actor, about constantly being told that she was hard to place as an actress. “Then, I asked myself what I wanted to do with me. I realized that I wanted to be a part of work that’s transformative and impactful. And, that’s what my character on ‘Queen Sugar’ is about.”

Wise seconded that notion by saying: “I had many false starts. But, with this stream of recent roles that I’ve had (in Underground, Shots Fired, various TV roles), I’ve been able to do good character work. But it’s taken a long time to get that kind of work.”

Anyone who’s been watching television for the past 10 years knows that there was a period of time when people of color weren’t represented as anything but the sassy black friend; unless they were in shows or films where Tyler Perry’s name is in the front of the title.

These days, after government involvement for more inclusion in television, there are far more great shows showcasing the talents of black actors and the struggles of black people.

It’s been a kind of renaissance for actors, who have been working so hard to break into the industry. But, there’s still many miles ahead to cover and there are still many actors (and directors, producers and writers) out there in the world who are hopeful to make their big break.

The best lines of the panel, though, actually came from its quirky host, whose been acting for 35 years. Whitfield said to the audience: “Right now, you could be in the mist of your drought and God may be trying to make you learn how to swim in preparation for what’s to come.”

The best part of the “New Faces of TV” panel was that you didn’t have to be an aspiring actor to get inspiration. Dandridge, Wise, Usher, Gardner, and Richardson were challenged by ABFF’s founder (Jeff Friday) to reach back and help others so that those who come after them can say that they were positively impacted by the actors on the panel.

After all, that is what ABFF is supposed to be about: an event where aspiring artists in entertainment can network and get advice from the experts.

You can reach Kimberly Grant at KAliciaG@aol.com.