Maybelle Wallace

Maybelle Wallace has been involved with Theatre North since the late 1970s, and became its executive director in 1982.

In February, Theatre North will present the Sankofa Players of Dallas, Texas, at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

Maybelle Wallace is a no-nonsense Tulsan who, after developing an early interest in acting, has dedicated more than 40 years of leadership to community theater.

The 90-year-old was born in Tulsa and serves as executive director of Theatre North. In 2014, she was recognized with the Mary Kay Place Legacy Award by the Tulsa Awards for Theater Excellence (TATE). In 2005, she was recognized with the Governor’s Ars Award.

Wallace also has received the Pinnacle Award in arts and humanities from the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1996, is an alumna of Leadership Tulsa, has been named a Tulsa YWCA Woman of Moxie and won the Champion of the Arts Award from Theatre Tulsa in 2019. These accolades signify her enduring commitment to performance art that highlights the Black experience.

Where did you go to school/university? Why?

Booker T. Washington. It was the only high school that Blacks were allowed to go to. I graduated in 1947.

How did you get into acting?

I was in my church’s “Tom Thumb Wedding” production around age 9 or 10, and in the sixth grade I acted in “The Gold Dust Twins.” In the 10th grade, I was in some Paul Robeson plays as a member of the Paul Robeson Players group. I appeared in (the film) “Rumblefish” in 1982, and I made a film with director Carlton Bartholomew (Uncle Zeb on KTUL) called “Cole Justice.”

What do you enjoy about acting?

It’s very exciting. I get goosebumps and stage fright. When I was young, I admired Shirley Temple. I liked how she danced. In high school, I had an opportunity to meet Bill Robinson, who played Bojangles.

What was one of your most defining moments in life?

I got married at 18 and left home for the first time. I had to grow up very quickly, and my standard of living had changed considerably. I grew from a self-focused child to a young woman who chose to share her life with and put the needs of others first.

How many children do you have?

I’m the mother of five — I had four live births, and I’ve got three living children. I’ve got one granddaughter and one great-grandson who is 23 years old.

What age do you feel right now and why?

55. The reason I chose 55 is because my daughter tells me that I am on a different trajectory than most other people. She is in her 60s and has convinced me that I am feeling what she was feeling five years ago. When I was in my 60s, I felt fabulous. I am beginning to feel less energetic. My get-up-and-go has got up and gone. So, based on what I guess is a relatable number, I settled on 55.

How would your friends describe you?

They would say that Maybelle is plainspoken and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. She’s not a sugary sweet person but strong and fiercely loyal to those she loves. She is unconventional, not afraid to go against the status quo. She is creative, dependable, trustworthy and honest. And … sassy!

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I can sew. In the past, I designed and made clothes for myself and my children.

If you could witness any event in the past, present or future, what would it be?

There were rumors about my parentage. I would like to witness my birth to answer questions that have been with me my entire life.

What was a “worst time” and how did you pull through it?

When I received a call from New York telling me that my son had died. He had a blood clot in his lung. I had talked to him on a Friday and I got the call that Sunday. What pulled me through was my faith in God. I believe that we don’t die, that our spirits are eternal. My son is not with me physically, but I believe he is alive. With prayer, I was able to heal and find the strength to bear his loss. However, I will never completely heal from his loss.

What concerns you today?

My health and aging. How will COVID-19 affect me and all of the implications for us going forward? What will be our “new normal”?

You’ve been the executive director of Theatre North since 1982. It’s a major part of your life. What other roles have you had with the production company?

I joined Theatre North in the late 1970s. I was previously the business manager, but I’ve been everything — seamstress, wardrobe, prop director — whatever we needed. There’s not enough money involved to make a living. This is something you really have to love to do. We finished “The Face of Emmett Till” in March. It was a sold-out performance every night.

How many actors and total crew members usually are involved in a production? How do you choose what plays to pursue?

It varies. In “The Face of Emmett Till” we had 15 actors, and with those backstage helping them get dressed, set designers, etc., it’s around 30 people total. We sometimes hear from board members on what plays to choose, or somebody who has worked with us in the past might suggest one.

How do you measure success?

When my efforts are well received, and others are inspired by them. Knowing that what we do brings joy to others and has changed lives. I have been told that (Theatre North) has brought out some from deep depression and has prevented suicides. Also, our company has been a jumping point for successful theatrical careers.

Who are some of those actors and actresses who have performed with Theatre North?

Brennan Brown has acted in our plays. He’s now a TV actor who has appeared in “The Man in the High Castle.” Hilda Boulware is another one who has been in the TV show “Modern Family.” Vanessa Adams-Harris (writer, director and actor) also has worked with us. She won an American Association of Community Theatre Award for “Who Will Sing for Lena?” which was a play we had produced here in Tulsa. Dr. Rodney L. Clark is a director, playwright, actor and filmmaker who wrote a play for Theatre North, “Reverend I’m Available,” which toured for seven years. He has produced DVDs and published a series of plays about Black Wall Street. He started with Theatre North as an actor.

What is a favorite Tulsa memory?

The birth of my first and only great-grandson.

Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa or elsewhere.

Go to a haute couture showing during fashion week in Paris, where I would be fitted for a wardrobe. I would stay at a luxury hotel with a butler and concierge service and be served breakfast in bed. Of course, I would go to the theater and enjoy a five-star Michelin dinner. Finally, I would see the iconic sights of Paris, such as the Eiffel Tower.

What do you miss the most in Tulsa?

Petty’s Fine Foods.

What are the most significant changes you’ve experienced in Tulsa?

I was born in the same decade as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Jim Crow laws were entrenched, and the Civil Rights Movement brought many significant changes. I remember when Blacks could not use restrooms or try on clothes in department stores. The only clerks they would hire were very fair-skinned Blacks and even they were relegated to areas that were not highly visible. Blacks did not have equal access to employment. Most were employed in domestic and service positions. Blacks did not own businesses outside of north Tulsa. Hospitals were segregated and Moton, now Morton, was the only Black hospital. At one popular eatery, Black customers had to eat in the kitchen. Again, schools were segregated.

And lastly, integration brought an unintended change to the Black community. Urban renewal devastated north Tulsa. We once had a flourishing and vibrant business community, and neighborhoods have also declined.

What is next for Theatre North?

We were supposed to move into the Tulsa Performing Arts Center to perform a play called “Greenwood” (in May). Later we’ll present “The Meeting” by Jeff Stetson, bringing a group from Dallas to do the show. It’s about (an imaginary conversation between) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in 1965 in a hotel room in Harlem during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. They both had different ideas on the Black experience. We’re waiting to see what’s going to transpire with all of the COVID-19 activity. We’re looking forward to doing something in 2021. It just depends on the future climate.

Gail Ellis is a communications specialist in Tulsa and enjoys telling stories about the people, places and history of America’s magic city.

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