When I heard about the nomination, I said Oh my God! Somebody actually saw what I did. They acknowledged what I did, and I was really humble to the whole trip. Talking about her win at the AUDELCO Awards ceremony, this past November for her role as Carmen in the New Federal Theater’s production of Runner’s, Pamela Poitier was a breathless wonder. Her face was radiant as she recounted the excitement of the nomination and the night when her peers dubbed her one of the best.
The award was a Godsend because I was questioning my work and abilities and it came at a time when I needed an ego boost.
For the last four years, Pamela Poitier has been living in New York, trying to carve out her own little space in New York’s theatrical kingdom. As the daughter of one of the most prolific and renowned black actors on the American screen today, Pamela is attempting to create a career and image for herself that is clearly her own and she easily admits it’s been a struggle: “In New York you really have to hustle because there are a whole lot of people bucking for that number one spot that you’re bucking for, and I just kind of put on blinders and say, hey, I’m going, and I’m not going to let anything stop me no matter what gets in my way.”
We hear the name Pamela Poitier and it immediately conjures up images. Meeting her can be a deceiving experience. On the phone one is nicely intimidated by a voice that is deeply controlled and sensually eloquent. It is a voice well trained in confidence.
Visions of Miss Hollywood invade the psyche as you sit there wrestling with images befitting the daughter of a star and you wonder if she’ll put you through the ‘‘I am’’ trips — she does not.
My first impression is one of trust and openness. She is congenial to the point where you just want to kick off your shoes and shoot the jive. I arrived at the interview in jeans, she was casually attired in early unique comfort baggy slacks that tied at the ankle, danskin top and sweater, and those little black oriental sandals. Her hair was concealed under a simple scarf, no makeup—it wasn’t necessary.
Chains adorn her neck, symbolic of nothing more than perhaps her interest in jewelry, and I sensed they were not there for show, but rather because she simply wanted them there. There was no pretense.
Material written on her is scared to say the least, and that which is always at some point allusively built around her father, Sidney Poitier.
Starting from ground zero, it was only appropriate that the simplest of questions be dealt with first: Where were you born? I hit pay dirt. “Oh I’m so glad you asked me that question first?” she exclaimed with a great sigh of relief. “I was born in Harlem, New York on 124th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.’’
She is excited about discussing this aspect of her life and the reason soon became apparent. “A lot of people think I’m the only Black American Jewish Princess, and that I was either born in Hollywood or someplace close to that. When I am up in Harlem shopping or visiting family and friends, people come up to me and say, ‘well Pamela what are you doing up here?’ or ‘it’s about time you came up here,’ and I say ‘look, you don’t know. See I was born here and I may look cute and act cute, but I still got street in me’.”
Pamela lived in Harlem with her family until she was about three years old, then they moved to Mt. Vernon, and later to Pleasantville. They tried the Los Angeles scene for a while, but found the climate too disconcerting and later moved back to New York settling in Pleasantville, where she spent a good part of her childhood. She attended boarding school in Massachusetts but experienced malicious jealousy and false gossip put out by the daughter of another entertainer attending the school, who in some way viewed Pamela as a rival.
“I was only thirteen years old, and I didn’t know nothing. She had her own little niche and pedestal and she felt I was a threat, and I didn’t even know the child. In fact, I was looking forward to meeting her because I thought we had a lot in common and she could teach me the ropes. Instead, she decided to destroy my thing.”
Overcoming this minor setback, Pamela later transferred to another school and, upon graduation, transferred to Howard University where she was a pre-law student. Her desire to study acting, however, prompted her to enroll in NYU’s School of International Law in New York.
New York would offer her a better opportunity to pursue an acting career, she felt. “I wanted to study my acting on a serious level,” she explains, “and I wanted to grow as a woman. School was not teaching me how to deal with the real world as far as I was concerned, so I decided to stop wasting my parents’ money because I was not at all that interested or dedicated to school. So I left school and began to study acting. I held a few odd jobs so I could be where it was happening, and I had to be on the street to get that, to observe people, to look at different kinds of people and to know how to work certain kinds of jobs. Maybe I will go back someday, but right now I don’t feel that’s what I need.”
She was always interested in acting, having been what she terms “a television bug” — acting was just something she always wanted to do. “It didn’t know what my father did”, she states simply. “When I was with him in Paris watching him shoot Paris Blues, it was the first time I had ever been on a movie set and seen all the lights, cameras, cables and it wasn’t star struck time for me…I just wondered what all these people were doing and it looked like fun, and I am sitting in a nightclub (one of the sets for the movie) watching Daddy play an instrument, knowing fully well that he really doesn’t play an instrument, but he’s playing one and it looks like fun…But I didn’t know what he was doing or what it was called, and I was told not to worry about it. My parents tried to keep my sisters and me away from his life as much as possible and to shelter us from that whole scene.”
“I didn’t know what he did until I was eight or ten, but until then I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to do the kind of stuff they did on television. I wanted to play different roles, to be a ‘damsel in distress’ or a police woman, because my imagination was there. I was one of those hyperactive children and I had to be doing something twenty-four hours a day or I’d be a mess. That’s where the television comes in because when I couldn’t sleep at night I’d just get up, turn on the TV and sit in my little rocking chair just rocking and looking at television…And then I realized that acting was what I wanted to do. But still I remembered, and I kept hearing from my parents, especially my father who was very adamant about it, ‘don’t do that, don’t get involved in an acting career, it’s tough, it’s hard, do anything else but that,’ and I said oh well — I’ll have to keep this a secret then. So basically, I did.”
Her secret manifested itself in ways that kept her involved in theatre but never really placed her on stage. She was involved in the Pleasantville Playhouse for a time, but her involvement was more behind the scenes— script girl, set builder, assistant to the director—and it wasn’t until she attended a performing arts high school that her drama teacher suggested that she give acting a try. “She kept telling me I had presence. She worked with me like a child from an embryo, and just opened me up slowly. She didn’t rush me, and was very careful about what she told me and how she criticized me…and she instilled some kind of belief in me.”
Subsequently this experience led her to the stage for her role as Hippolyta in a local production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I didn’t have too many lines, but it was fun, but then I thought, it wasn’t so bad after all acting, but of course I am not going to make a career out of this!”
“It wasn’t until I was twenty-one that I felt, now I am legal. Legally I am an adult and I can now choose my own profession, and that’s what I did—I was going to be an actress. I had never said so before because of the family pressure and I really tried to stay away from it.” From that declaration Pamela began to move full speed towards realizing her ambition. She formed her own poetry group and gave local readings, and although her acting skills were basically etched out in a workshop setting (she was a member of the DC Black Repertory Company and the Howard Players while attending Howard University), she had not fully hit the stage as a professional actress until she arrived in New York in 1975.
Since that time she has amassed a small but significant string of theatrical accomplishments in Off-Broadway productions such as Jockeys, Jamima (the Harlem Performance Center), Homeboy (Perry Street Theater), Transitions of a Mime Poem (La Mama Theatre), Neo-Black Women in Poetry (Seaford Playhouse), and Runners (the New Federal Theater). She appeared in a film produced by the University of Pennsylvania entitled The Other Woman, in which she played a wife jilted by her husband. She has also appeared in Paramount Pictures’ The Warriors, but the role has since been edited out.
To support herself in between shows she has worked as a secretary, receptionist, free-lance ear piercer, horseback riding instructor, and, on occasion, a production assistant for her father’s company, Verdon Productions, where she is involved in script evaluations. She has taught drama and conducted self-awareness workshops for youngsters in the Harlem community, and when time permits she reads new plays in progress at the Frank Silvera Workshop.
She is a gregarious individual, the kind of person you can easily sit and talk with, and therefore one is not surprised to hear that friends just drop in to rap about life and discuss their problems. “I’m seeing a lot of actresses whom I’ve worked with in the DC Company—who at that time were hot stuff, and who were actually making a living as actresses—come to New York, and they’re not used to the rejection and competition, and they are no longer the stars. Meanwhile, I’ve been struggling and taking my time and working my way up slowly but surely, and now they’re coming to me for advice and I say, wow, this is really a turn around of roles.”
I tried to avoid asking the next question, because somehow my intuition told me what the answer would be and yet I was curious. After all, how often do you hear, it’s not what you know, but who you know that makes the difference, and here I am sitting with Pamela Poitier talking about struggle, and I’m hearing things like boarding school, trips to Paris when she was young, horseback riding and all that other middle-class stuff. Her father is no lightweight in the film world. He writes, produces and directs, and I am sure—at least I thought I was sure—that there are people, especially in the world of tinsel, eager to piggy-back on her name, people who might simply give her the breaks because of it.
“No, I’m sorry”, she answers with a kind of are-you-kidding attitude. “What is easy”, she explains “is the fact that I’ve been watching people like my father, Paul Newman, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Ivan Dixon since I was very young, so it’s not as if I yesterday decided I wanted to become an actress and plopped my name out there and said do it for me, it’s been ingrained. Because I am Sidney’s daughter, they don’t jump at me, because I don’t present myself in that way. I go in there just like every other actress auditioning… nervous as hell…wondering whether or not I can get this…really wanting it and not sure what they want, but just going in to try and do my best and I walk out saying oh God that was really awful or I felt good regardless whether I got the part. And there are many times when I don’t get the part. Being Sidney Poitier’s daughter doesn’t mean a thing. I am young, I still have to grow. My acting has to be nurtured and a lot of parts that call for my age are going to actresses older than I, and I don’t fit a lot of parts, and it’s hard because I am different.”
“How different?” I ventured to ask. “I am not a type-actress, I am not a stereotypical actress, and I am not a black actress….and it’s hard because I will go in for an audition and they will ask me to be black, and I look at my skin, feel the face, touch my hair and say, well, what is that?”
Imitating stereotypical streetish behavior associated most times with black characterizations, Pamela demonstrates the kind of attitude many producers and directors allude to when they talk about “acting” black without giving any reason other than to be. “Don’t tell me to be Black unless there is a reason,” she states defiantly. “I don’t say I am a black actress because that’s a whole trip and it’s too narrowing. I am an actress— period. I will go up for a white part as quickly as I will a black part, I need the whole experience.”
At twenty-five, experience means a lot to this young lady. She is serenely confident about what she wants out of life and it’s obvious that she won’t settle for less. She dubs herself a recluse, begging off the disco and party scene, opting instead to spend her time reading, writing or enjoying the company of a few close friends. “I spend a lot of time by myself and I am always busy. I like to be busy. In New York you’ve got to grow, you’ve got to move and you are constantly — if not working — working at working, which is something more than doing nothing. I am working at working now and that keeps me moving … the possibilities are endless here.”
How does her family, particularly her father, feel about her pursuing an acting career at this stage of the game? “He’s still hoping it’s a phase,” she comments jokingly. “He’s trying to keep his eyes closed to the whole trip. It’s difficult for him and I don’t look for much support. And besides,” she adds with a contrived feminine air, “I’m a girl y’all. I should be off somewhere having babies or working as an orthodontist assistant helping out with the income or something.”
She laughs at such statements when the truth is that her parents really didn’t want an acting career for her or her three sisters. The importance of such professions as doctor, lawyer, nurse, orthodontist was impressed on her from childhood, coupled with getting married and raising a family.
Acting was something to stay away from and, being a black actor in Hollywood, her father probably knew all too well what the real struggle was all about. But that was then, and this is now — Pamela has, in her own way, broken the family code. She is determined to be an actress and her determination is steadfast and consistent. Plagued by overweight and pimples as a teenager, she was, as she puts it, “a mess—I weighed 178 pounds and had the zits.” Today, her 5’8’’ frame sports a well-distributed 130 pounds and her complexion is flawless. “I had a mental image of how I should look and I molded myself into that image. I’m very vain about my body, it took me a long time to work it down and I’m proud of it.”
Is image important to her? It is only when people perceive of her wrongly. She delights in dressing up according to her moods. “One day I can be very sophisticated— hair flying, dress, sunglasses, makeup, and the next day I can look like a thug. I love it when people don’t recognize me because it alerts them to the fact that things are not always what they seem. I have been criticized for not being consistent, and I say at least I’m consistent with my inconsistencies.”
Typically, Pamela lets business dictate the order of the day. She begins each morning with a prayer, and if there is a round of auditions to attend, she does so, otherwise, she might go out and enjoy the city, visiting museums and art shows or just relax at home writing poetry. She likes writing, especially poetry, and would one day like to have poems relating to young people published. She rarely titles her work, for they are written as extensions of her feelings at a particular moment. Her poems speak of love, beauty and, depending on her mood, she may write something belligerent. Examples of this are seen in the following:
I don’t want to be popular
I want to be loved
I don’t want to be called today’s woman
I am a woman today
I was a woman yesterday
I will be a woman tomorrow
So don’t raise any phallic banners in my behalf
I’ll raise my own thank you
Just let me pass through this life
As I’ve passed through so many before
Without a grimace on my face or a curse in my heart
I want to be me
Whoever I choose to be
Free to be me
and what I am… WOMAN*
*Used by permission of Ms. Poitier
“I am not a woman’s libber’’ she cautions, ‘‘I enjoy being a woman and I believe each woman’s individuality is up to her. It’s not a woman’s world or a man’s world… It’s everybody’s world.”
The interview is slowly coming to a close and in these last minutes there is a vulnerability that is obvious and yet warm in nature. There is a sense of peace and control absent in most young actresses and actors that you meet and her confidence is controlled to a point where it does not seem overbearing.
She views herself as an instrument in constant need of tuning and she works hard at perfecting the skills that will make her stand out among the rest when her time comes. Drama classes at Lee Strasberg’s is scheduled for the year, as well as, dance and voice lessons. She takes advantage of every available medium necessary to strengthen her talents, and time is just something that will catch up to her…she will not lose any of it.
Her greatest ambition is to do a musical because she feels it would be just the right vehicle to alert people to her talents. “It will bring out a different side of me, a side that is very creative, because I will have to work. I am an actress who can sing and dance—I am not a singer or a dancer, but I can sing and dance. A musical would broaden my whole thing and it will shock everybody and maybe that will be the vehicle to bring me out. I like challenges,” she adds with that squint of the eye that her father is noted for,”doing a musical would really be stretching it…and, there is nothing I am afraid to do on stage, any stage.”
Will Pamela Poitier make it in New York? Who can say for sure. The list of casualties is endless and perverse. Personally, I don’t think she’ll make the list. Oh, we can easily brush it off and say ‘well if she doesn’t make it, she always has something to fall back on’, but to do that would be an injustice. Like everyone else she has goals and aspirations. She is as much an individual as you or I, she was just born attached to a star.
“I give in but I don’t give up. I won’t give up on my goals or dreams ‘cause all I’ve got are my dreams and if I give up on my dreams then I have no reality, because dreams are our reality,” states Pamela Poitier.