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The Bright Lights of Broadway Shine on Crystal Dickinson ’98

How do you get to Broadway? For Crystal Dickinson, the route ran right through Seton Hall, where she took an unexpected detour from her original journey to become a kindergarten teacher.

The former aspiring teacher landed a plum dual role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park, and in June, Dickinson received the prestigious Theater World Award, given to outstanding newcomers to the Broadway stage. Past recipients have included such megawatt luminaries as Marlon Brando, Julie Andrews and Dustin Hoffman.

The award was presented by 1966 award-winner Leslie Uggams, a nearly 60-year presence on stage, screen and TV, who had worked with Dickinson in the Signature Theater Company’s production of The First Breeze of Summer (by Leslie Lee).

Photo by Barbara Bordnick

Dickinson’s acceptance speech went something like this: “Performing is something that found me. I’ve always loved theater but I studied to be an elementary school teacher. While I was [an undergraduate] I met a wonderful professor named Deirdre Yates, who inspired me to get my MFA. The rest is history.”

Yates, Seton Hall professor of speech and theater, had accompanied Dickinson to the award ceremony that day and was sitting with the actress’s family. “I was just sobbing through the whole thing,” Yates says of that moment.

Uncomfortable in the limelight, Yates turned to Crystal’s mother, Annie, to congratulate her on having “done a wonderful job of raising her daughter.” To which Mrs. Dickinson replied: “’Deirdre, we did this together.’”

“Crystal’s success is such an affirmation of my work as a theatre professor. I could retire a happy woman!” says Yates. “That afternoon at the Belasco Theatre when she acknowledged and thanked me so publicly, it was just incredible!”

The performing art not only had to find Crystal Dickinson, it had to convince her. And that took Deirdre Yates, who recognized “a tremendous amount of innate talent” right from the start. Their original meeting came out of Yates’ decision to stage The Colored Museum, a play by George C. Wolfe. The play features 11 vignettes that sharply satirize African-American culture and won the Dramatists Guild Award in 1986.

Yates needed African-American actors, and that “brought a lot of people of color out to audition,” she says. One was Dickinson, who quickly won several big roles.

“It was the first all-black production the school had done,” Dickinson recalls. She adds that she’ll never forget the first day of rehearsal when Yates asked the cast to share their African-American cultural backgrounds with her, saying, “I’m willing to learn from you guys, and I hope you’re willing to learn from me.”

The play went on to sell out every night and was “just the loveliest time I ever had,” Dickinson says. “People really did work together, making the effort to be open about their feelings and to learn from each other.”

Yet Dickinson considered it a one-time experience, she admits. So when Yates decided to mount the classical Greek play Electra next, Dickinson didn’t audition.

Traveling to the dorms to find out why, Yates says that Dickinson’s response was, “’Do you really think I can?’”

To which Yates responded, “Yes!”

Dickinson not only went on to perform the title role brilliantly in Electra, but appeared in major roles in every show Yates put on while Dickinson was an undergraduate.

Even after all these triumphs, Dickinson still planned to become a kindergarten teacher — or so she tried to inform her mentor. She vividly recalls what Yates said when she told her: “’Are you kidding? No you’re not. You’re not doing that. You’re going to get your MFA and you’re going to become an actress!’”

But to gain admission to graduate training programs in theater, Crystal — who had never taken any formal acting lessons — first had to undergo a rigorous try-out for the University/Resident Theatre Association in New York. U/RTA provides a variety of services to drama novices, but only to those selected after a live, on-stage trial by fire.

Yates worked closely with Dickinson to hone her stage presence, style and poise, and was “incredibly proud” when Crystal received a slot at the University of Illinois’ prestigious theater program.

“She even drove me to the audition in New York and waited outside the door for me,” Dickinson recalls. Even so, it turned out to be quite a transition for her in graduate school. One reason, she says, is that Seton Hall staged its plays in the round. “I didn’t even know what stage left was,” she says.

Dickinson has since learned to find her way around a lot of stages — including those at Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, The Signature Theater, Soho Rep and The Atlantic Theater — and also onto the small screen. Today, her credits include work on Tyler Perry’s television show House of Payne.

What makes Dickinson such an extraordinary actor? “She has the ability to share of herself on stage,” Yates says. “What she shares is a combination of honesty and emotion that just makes the character crystal clear — no pun intended. And it is mesmerizing to audiences when actors can expose themselves so thoroughly on stage.”

Drama teachers can help those with raw talent hone their skills with instruction in voice, motion and physical phrasing, Yates says, “but Crystal’s own passion and ability to share her humanity just draws you in.”

“I think when you do theater it’s a way to expose and explore your inner self,” Dickinson says. “As a result, people look at you in a very intimate way. Maybe part of the reason is that I am a very emotionally instinctive person.”

The ability to act also seems to be linked to an early shyness, both women acknowledge — yet what emerges is anything but self-conscious. Yates took drama classes to overcome shyness and Dickinson, who grew up in urban New Jersey, acted in several plays as a way to meet people when she attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn. She did the plays to be social, she says, but never wanted to be an actor.

Yet Dickinson has ended up following Yates in other ways. Both attended The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, the 150-year-old drama school in London’s West End theater district. Dickinson also eventually found a way to scratch the teaching itch. She has nearly 10 years’ teaching experience at Spelman College, the University of Illinois, Pace University and, soon, New York University.

Dickinson’s own students have gone on to study at the MFA programs at Yale, UCLA, University of Missouri-Kansas City, and The Actor’s Studio, and she hopes she is passing on the teaching influence of Deirdre Yates.

“This may sound hokey, but she loved me,” Dickinson said. “She loved me enough to help me when she didn’t have to. She had nothing to gain. But she let me know ‘you’re important enough to help.’ She spent time helping and teaching me how to find the best in me. I just hope when I teach I do the same.”

Bob Gilbert is a writer based in Connecticut.

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