Actress, Author Denise Nicholas Visits SHSJC
by Jessica Moore, Jasmine Williams
Award-winning author and actress Denise Nicholas was welcomed by a full
house on Wed., Jan. 19 at Caldwell Café, an event hosted by Hampton
University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.
Nicholas discussed her writing and acting career, in addition to her participation
in the civil rights movement.
For Nicholas, getting involved in the civil rights movement had been a
long-time dream. Despite disapproval from her family, she dropped out of
college at the University of Michigan to join the efforts in the South.
To contribute, she joined a theater group that performed for rural blacks
at various voter registration drives across the South. Nicholas and the
group experienced overwhelming adversity throughout their travels.
“Our theatre was harassed,” she said. “I even had a
gun put to my head.”
Later establishing a career in professional acting, Nicholas paved the
way for other black women across the platforms of theater, television and
the big screen. Best known for her roles as Harriet DeLong on the television
drama “In the Heat of the Night” and as Liz McIntyre on the
groundbreaking 1970s series “Room 222,” Nicholas discussed her
desire for “out-of-the-box” roles.
“I never wanted to be a glamour girl,” admitted Nicholas. “I
tried to get characters that were older than I was … and even marred
in some way or another.”
Nicholas said that if she could play any character, it would be the role
of Celeste Tyree – the protagonist in her debut novel, “Freshwater
Road”: a coming-of-age story set in the heat of the civil rights movement.
The award-winning novel is based on Nicholas’ personal experiences.
“The book put me back in touch with myself,” Nicholas said. “When
I started writing, experiences and memories flood back as if I was experiencing
them again. It was right at my fingertips the whole time.”
Overall, Nicholas said that writing has been the highlight of her career.
Her newly released “Hands on the Freedom Plow, Personal Accounts of
Women in the SNCC” offers a testimonial of her time with the Free
Southern Theater in the South during the most violent times of the civil
rights movement. Nicholas revealed that she is currently working on a third
Despite her achievements, Nicholas said that black actors and writers
have much farther to go in the industry. In a closing round of questions
posed by the students, Nicholas offered wise words of encouragement.
“Keep learning,” she said. “Take advantage of the relationships
you establish here and bond with one another. Most importantly, never let
anything break your spirit.”