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 Adilah Barnes: “I Am, That I Am”

By Deardra Shuler
April 2, 2003

Adilah Barnes was on the east coast for a short duration. She was enjoying her sojourn in New York, happily greeting a long time friend when we got together for our chat. Her face lit up; incandescent, as she described her life as an actress, acting teacher, producer and writer. Barnes has devoted over 30 years to her craft and it seems has come out the other end, an award winner. She received a Dramalogue Award for Outstanding Performance and a Critics Circle Award nomination. In 2000, she received international acclaim at the Rotterdam Fabrikaat Festival in Holland.

A native Californian, Adilah grew up in the small town of Oroville in the Sacramento Valley. The south seemed to call and she answered by heading down state where she attended the University of California at Santa Cruz earning her B.A., in Theatre Arts. Southward bound, she ended up in the Bay Area of San Francisco where she trained at the American Conservatory Theatre. Barnes eventually became a full time teacher of the Conservatory’s Advanced Training Program. She remained in the Bay area for the next 17 years. Thereafter, heading for North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley of LA, where she has been living for the last 13 years.
Adilah Barnes “When I lived in the Bay Area, I co-founded an organization called BABAC which stood for Bay Area Black Actors Connection. After I moved to L.A., I co-founded the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival with Hattie Winston and Danny Glover. The Festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary; thus, I would like to think I left my mark in both cities. I also would like to think that I left my mark in terms of my solo show, “I Am That I Am: Woman, Black,” states Barnes.

Adilah turned her attention to film in the early mid 80’s. “My first on camera work was for a made for TV movie, entitled “The Johnny Mae Gibson Story,” which was directed by Bill Duke and starred Lynn Whitfield. The movie was based on the real life story of the first black female FBI agent. It was my first movie so I had an under five role which in movie vernacular means a co-starring role.” Barnes has been on screen numerous times since. She is best known, for her role as Anna, in the movie, “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts. She also appeared with Sandra Bullock in “Murder By Numbers.” She is slated to appear in the upcoming HBO movie, entitled, “Iron Jawed Women,” in which she will play the role of Ida B. Wells, opposite Angelica Houston and Hillary Swank. Barnes has appeared in “Bulworth”, “Basic Instinct”, and “Beyond Suspicion” to name a few.
Her television credits include: "The Gilmore Girls"; "Family Law"; "The Agency"; "Roswell"; "Suddenly Susan"; "Mad About You"; the CBS-Hallmark special, "Little John", opposite Ving Rhames, Gloria Reuben and Patty Duke and ABC’s "Roseanne", where she played the character Anne Marie for five seasons.

She is also known for her role as Judge Randall in Lifetime Television’s pilot program, "For the People," starring Debbie Morgan and Lea Thompson. She has graced the stage in August Wilson’s play, "Joe Turner Has Come and Gone"; "A Christmas Carol"; "Daddy"; "Sister Can I Speak For You?" And, of course, her solo show, "I Am That I Am: Woman, Black."

Barnes was wearing a very jaunty hat the day I met her and appears to be a wearer of many hats. As an author, she is presently writing an autobiographical book, entitled, “On My Own Terms, One Actor’s Journey.” As an acting coach she is lauded by luminaries such as Jada Pinkett Smith (Set It Off); Don “DC” Curry (Grace Under Fire); Toni Braxton (Play’d and Kingdom Come) among others. She has tutored over 2000 students, including Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order) and Lauren Lane (The Nanny).

For the last 13 seasons, Barnes has been touring her one woman show, "I Am That I Am: Woman, Black" in over 34 cities; New Jersey will make 35. The show has been to Europe and the Caribbean as well. During the show, Barnes takes on the persona of 7 historical women, switching from character to character starting with: Sojourner Truth, then Harriet Tubman, Mary McCloud Bethune, Zora Neale-Hurston, Lorraine Hansbury, Angela Davis, and ending with Maya Angelou. “My busiest time is mid January when Dr. Martin Luther King’s celebration takes place through Women’s History Month. So far this year, I have taken the show to Mississippi, including my parent’s birth place where I met people who knew my parents as children. That was really quite an experience. I traveled to Richmond, VA., where I made it my business to visit historical Jamestown. I wanted to see the site where slaves were brought to America against their will in 1619. This was my heart’s desire and it was quite an emotional journey. While by the water, I felt very strongly the spirits of those slaves who were brought over.”

Barnes is very much an advocate of theatre. “The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival is a different medium, genre and discipline from film of course, because its theatre primarily. The City of Los Angeles, McDonalds, and the Union Bank of California is underwriting us because this is our 10th anniversary. To that end, they have given us a space at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. It’s a beautiful space and quite huge. We have Monday night programming for five Mondays which we call our milestone Mondays since it’s our 10th year. We offer a regular programming of 6 shows, plus our Champagne Gala and Award ceremonies, of which, this year, Dr. Beverly Robinson, of UCLA, will be awarded posthumanously.” Celebrity performers for the event will include Marla Gibbs, Karen Malano White, and Virginia Capers.

Although, Barnes has a 25-year-old son and a 4-year-old grandson, she radiates a youthful demeanor. “My grandson calls me grandma and I think it sounds so old. I kind of wish he would call me ‘G’ since that’s a little more subtle,” giggles the prolific performer. Barnes also has a sense of integrity for her work. “Some actors are willing to play that Stepin Fetchit role because its work and they can articulate that, who they are, is not necessarily what they do. To them, it’s a job, and they feel if they don’t take it, someone else will. Personally, I have never subscribed to that way of thinking and have passed on projects because there are things I simply will not do because I feel a responsibility for the work I do. I guess I am like Bill Cosby in a way. He once said he would never take a role that his children could not come to see and that is the way I feel about my grandson. I won’t do anything that my grandson can’t say “that's my grandma!!!” It’s important to me that what I do is based in my sense of integrity.”

In lieu of that, Barnes has given back to the community as a mentor. “I would say to anyone that wishes to be a part of this business: First, and foremost, get training so that you know the rules. Develop a sense of confidence and know what you are doing. It’s a profession as much as any other. I wouldn’t want to be in front of a camera or on stage and not have had some kind of reference to draw from. There are many ways for actors to train. For those actors who don’t have money, there are community colleges, acting books and/or community theatre companies where they can train.”

What’s left for someone who has done as much as Barnes has in show biz? “I see myself writing more. Maybe, I will go back and study in terms of film school to consider directing on camera. You got to know the rules. I would not assume to get up in front of a camera because of my theatre background and presume that I can be a great filmmaker. I feel strongly that whatever you do make sure you know what you’re doing and that means train.”

I have a feeling whatever Barnes does she will be that, that she is, Woman, and artist extraordinaire.

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