Darius Wallace is reciting a bit of wisdom he heard a few years ago. Wallace, a local actor, knows it's true and knows it's tough.
"It's harder [in Memphis] to make a living as an actor. For me to do it, I have to do multiple things at one time," says Wallace. "I think every actor in the city would have more to offer if they could just focus on their craft. The amount we receive should be based on what we put into the work."
If this were true, Wallace's paycheck for Starry Road to Freedom would be sky-high. The one-man show, which Wallace wrote and stars in, is based on the life and writings of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and depicts Douglass in his later years as he returns to his childhood slave quarters and reminisces about his youth.
In a recent preview of the show, Wallace took a middle-school audience on Douglass' journey from his carefree frolicking as a slave child to the coming-of-age experiences of a field slave and the brutality that accompanied it, the extreme hunger for literacy, and finally the escape from slavery to freedom. The audience sat riveted as Wallace, through Douglass, explained that one of the keys to freedom is literacy.
"When I started reading about [Douglass], I felt a pull from his writings that people -- children and adults -- need to see," says Wallace. "One thing I've learned in this show and all my shows and in my life is the power of the written and spoken word."
Wallace didn't realize this power until age 19 when a cold reading in acting class revealed his inability to read at an appropriate level. He began to read literature of all types, including poetry. "Poetry was one of the things that got me back into performing. It fits my delivery as an actor because I use a lot of words and images and I don't separate poetry from too much of anything, especially theater."
Wallace started acting in middle school at age 13 in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. His first performance was in the musical Oliver. "I knew I wanted to act in my freshman year in high school. My drama teacher asked me to try out for a lead role and I was shocked because in middle school I had gotten on stage and forgotten all my lines," says Wallace. He studied acting at the Flint Youth Theatre of Arts and the Interlochen Arts Academy in upper Michigan. After several roles in state productions, Wallace decided to take his show on the road.
He wrote and toured with his first one-man show, The Life of Malcolm X, in 42 states. Then his mother, a Memphis native, passed away. Wallace returned here to "get a break from the scene" and for a while his passion took a backseat to everyday life. He began the only other "career" he's known: sales.
After a year his passion returned. "I found myself not knocking on doors but [going] to a bookstore to write and get ideas. That's when I knew I'd be more successful if I just focused on acting."
Starry Road to Freedom has been performed at the National Civil Rights Museum and Airways Middle School. Plans are being made for performances throughout the area in Memphis public schools.
Although Wallace's one-man shows allow him to personally connect with his audiences and demonstrate his acting strengths, they are not the extent of his repertoire. His recent credits include Dreamgirls, As You Like It, and Wit at Playhouse on the Square and Soul of a People and the upcoming Black Nativity with the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre. He is a two-year company member of both groups and also conducts acting workshops throughout the city.
Next stop: Los Angeles, where Wallace plans to pursue roles in television and film, following the lead of those actors he admires, such as Denzel Washington and Samuel Jackson.
"It's dangerous for emotions and ideas to sit on your passion, sit on your dreams," says Wallace. "It would be better to let go of the thing you think you have to do and pursue the thing you really want to do because it is that thing that will liberate you financially, emotionally, and spiritually."
Starry Road to Freedom will be performed November 17th-18th at the National Civil Rights Museum and during Dr. Martin Luther King weekend in January. The play is also available for additional bookings.