On December 5th, acclaimed actor Joe Wilson, Jr., talked with Paul Cuffee Middle School students about his life, his profession, and his work as a member of the resident acting company at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Theater. He spoke passionately about the role of acting and education in making him who he is, and offered lessons for living a purposeful life.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Wilson majored in political science at the University of Notre Dame with his eye on becoming the governor of Louisiana. In addition to studying politics, he got involved in the university’s political life, campaigning for more black professors and more-secure financial aid packages. He was part of a group of activists who shut down the administration building as part of a protest. Although he has mixed feelings about this act, he is proud of the changes the movement wrought: a university office of minority affairs and a continuing legacy of more minority professors. His younger brother, who attended Notre Dame ten years later, was one of many who benefited from his passion.
To combat what he calls his “idleness” at Notre Dame, Wilson took an acting class, then auditioned for a part in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Although he notes that he didn’t understand the play at all, he got the part and loved it. In applying to graduate school, he sent applications both to law schools and to drama schools. Finding that he was admitted to twice as many drama schools, he took the hint, putting his political aspirations on hold and following his acting dream.
Wilson completed his master’s degree in acting at the University of Minnesota before heading to New York to look for work. He reminisced that he was so poor he didn’t have enough money to return home after auditioning. Although he enjoyed the action of New York City and the adrenaline rush associated with auditions in the city, he was pleased to land in Providence after traveling here to audition for a role that he ended up winning. Eventually he signed on with Trinity Rep, where he has worked for eight years, playing iconic roles such as Lancelot in Camelot, Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun, and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, among many others.
In expressing the meaning of art for him, Wilson said, “Art is the way we express ourselves when we feel most passionate about something. You are all artists. Art ain’t just for rich people. We all have the capacity and right to express ourselves in a passionate way.”
He went on to talk about how art, and acting in particular, can teach respect for others and for oneself: “What I love about my job is that we spend a lot of time creating a safe space for everyone. We have to understand everyone, listen to everyone, and respect everyone… In graduate school I learned to be human. All the ‘too this’–too short, too black, too white, too fat–I had to strip away those feelings about myself, so that I could be human. Acting will teach you how to be human, how to be yourself, how to be the person you want to be throughout life.”
Wilson emphasized the importance of education, noting that school is more than learning state capitals and geometry. School helps students learn how to be part of a community, how to listen, how to navigate tricky situations, how to think, how to be critical, and how to be caring human beings. He added, “Do your extracurricular activities, do sports, sing, act, because it teaches you how to collaborate, how to be compassionate, how to listen.”
He happily answered questions from students on a range of topics, but kept coming back to the need to live a purposeful life, something he learned from his parents: “I watched my father and my mother work hard to become better people. They taught me to be compassionate, don’t be a jerk to people, listen, put as much as you can into your head–see, learn, listen. I always find that when I am honest about what I want to do, and I do it with courage, I’m happy.”
Wilson’s view of success runs deeper than financial wealth. “I’m so pleased that I didn’t buy into other people’s definition of success,” he told students. “I am successful because I am doing what I love. As an actor I make decisions each moment. And it is in those moments, each decision, that we make and build a life. But work on each moment, each decision. Listen, observe. That makes a successful life. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m very happy with the person I’ve become. Ask for the courage to become the best person that you can be. Understand one another, listen to one another, be compassionate to everyone.”