A whisper changes everything: one-on-one direction from actor Winston Duke

Posted on September 12, 2022

Actor Winston Duke stands in the auditorium gallery talking to student Xavier Henry seated on the stage.

It’s hard to believe that someone as engaging, dynamic, and funny as Winston Duke could sneak up on an audience. But somehow, he did just that when he walked down the aisle of the UNCG Auditorium in a yellow blazer.

“We’d arrived early,” said Jaquan Cooper, a freshman in the School of Theatre. “And we were talking. Then everybody started craning their necks that way, and there he was.”

Once the applause died down, Assistant Professor of Theatre Mya Brown introduced the actor, whose credits include hit films “The Black Panther” and “Us,” to fifty eager drama students who had gathered for his masterclass preceding his 2022-23 University Concert & Lecture Series talk.

Next, Brown introduced the students who would perform for Duke. Drama student Riley Simutami and acting students Xavier Henry, Andre Otabor, and Gary Harris did a scene from “The Piano Lesson,” a play that Duke himself performed at the Yale Repertory Theater.

A Masterclass Like No Other

Winston Duke addresses drama students for a masterclass in the UNCG auditorium.

“I’ve attended some masterclasses before,” said Henry, a senior. “But never have I had the opportunity to perform in front of the person giving the masterclass. Having that hands-on training was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. It was awesome.”

After watching their first run, Duke gave the actors a challenge — do the scene again the way they thought a “bad actor” might do it.

“Liberate your acting,” Duke told the students. “There is no bad acting. There is no wrong way. Everything everybody is doing is an opportunity. And there’s no small role. You can steal the whole scene with one line.”

Winston Duke addresses drama students for a masterclass in the UNCG auditorium.

Duke walked each of the four students through their characters’ background, breaking down each aspect of their history and personality and considering how that might impact which lines they emphasized and what movements might be exaggerated.

He threw out ideas and hints all through their second performance. As Henry sauntered onstage as if coming back from a night of gambling, Duke called from the audience, “Sing a song as you come in. Sing a song you know.”

“All the dots connected,” said Henry. “It didn’t make sense at first. There’s what ‘bad acting’ meant to him and what it meant to me. But, no, he just wanted me to ‘release.’ To give into this notion that there’s something I’m striving for.”

“Whispers” in Duke’s personal journey

UNCG drama students meet Winston Duke and perform a scene from "The Piano Lesson" for him.

These gentle pushes, in a way, were like “whispers,” a word Duke repeatedly used to describe his own personal journey to become an actor. When his family and friends wanted him to pursue a career in law, he said it was the “whispers” that guided him to chase his dream over the “screams” of everyone else.

“These kids can do it all,” he said that evening during the moderated panel with Brown. “At this time, it’s just a spark. It’s just a whisper. That whisper changes everything. Everything you do comes in whispers. ‘Go left, go right, go to the office and talk to that faculty member.'”

Brown says, “It is imperative that we continue to bring in young influential artists of color to engage with our UNCG community. We chose Winston Duke for the UCLS series because of his generosity and brilliance. He dropped so many gems on our students and left them feeling inspired to ‘expand their vessel,’ do their due diligence, and be prepared, because their wishes can be their reality.”

Winston Duke addresses drama students for a masterclass in the UNCG auditorium.

New Students Inspired by Duke’s Words

“I expected him to be a down-to-earth guy,” said Jai Newkirk, a drama student. “I expect a lot of actors like him are that way.”

Newkirk, Cooper, and fellow freshman Laura Fulford were not disappointed by their first masterclass. They each have a different career path in mind and are excited to put what Duke said into action.

Fulford was inspired by his repeated insistence to “play the character as boldly as possible,” something she will keep in mind while she pursues a film career. “I’m part of Carmichael Studios, so I’m hoping to have a film reel, or have a film gig on campus by the end of this year, or even a paid gig by the end of 2023.”

For Cooper, it was how Duke compared the role of a “playwright” to a “shipwright.”

“I liked the analogy of how a scene is ‘built,'” said Cooper, who is pursuing a bachelor of fine arts in design and technical production. He asked Duke to elaborate on how actors incorporate props into their performance.

“It was nerve-racking,” Cooper said of speaking in front of Duke. “But I also wanted the opportunity to talk with him. Someone else got called on first, so I checked my notes — I had been taking them the whole time — and then raised my hand immediately. I was very excited.”

For Henry, it was an incredible way to begin his senior year. “School has changed so much since COVID. There were so many things I could have done, and I didn’t get to do. Having an opportunity to be onstage, unmasked, and fully using my instrument, which is my body, to embody that character … in front of Winston Duke, on top of all that. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Winston Duke addresses drama students for a masterclass in the UNCG auditorium.

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography by David Row, University Communications

Crowd of actors dressed in period suits and dresses sing onstage.

Find your place in the spotlight at UNCG

The School of Theatre Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama is a challenging and comprehensive exploration of critical skills needed to succeed in the field of theatre. Students develop foundational skills in acting, directing, script analysis, design, playwriting, dramaturgy, theatre history and dramatic literature.


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