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Artist Profile: Courtney B. Vance ’82 on Using Theater to Navigate Through Life

Courtney B. Vance '82 and the art of theater.
Courtney B. Vance '82 and the art of theater. By Courtesy of Makayla I. Gathers
By Makayla I. Gathers, Crimson Staff Writer

Courtney B. Vance ’82, alongside his wife Angela E. Bassett, was awarded the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural & Race Relations’s 2024 Artist of the Year Award. Vance, who is known for his extensive career in theater, film, and television, is decorated with two Primetime Emmy Awards, two NAACP Image Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and a Tony Award — in addition to being nominated for a BET Award, a Critics Choice Award, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy throughout a career that spans over four decades.

Vance, who grew up in Detroit, Michigan, attended Harvard as a first-year student in 1978.

“I was in Adams House,” he said. “I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I came here, and I was a little perturbed about that.”

“When I came to Harvard, I said, ‘I’m just glad to be here, and I’m going to find out what I want to do in life, and I’m not going to settle. I want to find out something that makes me happy.’”

After participating in football, basketball, and track in high school, Vance joined the Harvard varsity track team during his first year at The College.

“I ran track my first year and was a hurdler, and it wasn’t fun anymore,” he said. “So I said, ‘Hmm, I’m gonna stop track.’”

Instead, Vance started doing theater at Harvard to meet people.

“After my second show, my aunt came and saw it, and she said, ‘You should think about this as a career,’” he said. “And so I said, ‘Huh,’ and just started doing all kinds of shows here.”

At Harvard, Vance completed many work-study jobs, from typesetting for The Harvard Crimson to cleaning toilets at Eliot and Kirkland House.

“[I] manned the front desk at the Kennedy School of Government for a little bit of my freshman year, and then I ended up, [in] my sophomore year, delivering papers — Harvard Crimson’s, New York Times’s, and Boston Globe’s — in Harvard Yard, at the freshman dorms.”

Vance described his typical day as an undergraduate: Starting to deliver newspapers at 5:30 am, attending classes, and eventually riding his bike across the Charles River to rehearse at the Boston Shakespeare Company.

During his time at Harvard, Vance also participated in productions at the American Repertory Theater, including a 1980 production of Lee Breuer’s “Lulu.” He credited Catherine Slade — who played the lead in the production — for encouraging him to apply to become a part of Shakespeare & Company.

“I thought acting was doing voices when I was here,” Vance said. “I had to shift something in my mind about what acting was.”

Vance also discussed a time he finally had a breakthrough, during the famous Romeo and Juliet balcony scene.

“As I was saying the line, it went through me,” he said. “The emotions went through me on the line, and the teachers were like, ‘Courtney, you, you, you did it You did,’ I was like, ‘I did it! Didn’t I? I did it! Didn’t I? I did it! Didn’t I? I can do it, I can do this!’”

After graduating from Harvard, Vance attended the Yale School of Drama, where he met Bassett in 1980. He reminisced that “it was a very good day” when he found out he was admitted.

Despite his now-extensive film career, Vance had little interest in film while at Yale.

“There was no film thing at Yale School of Drama. We were just theater. Nobody wanted to go to LA,” Vance said. “You want to get on stage and be on Broadway. That was our goal.”

His first of three Broadway roles was in the original production of August Wilson’s “Fences,” where he shared the stage with stars such as James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, and Mary Alice. He was cast as Corey, the son of the protagonist, by director Lloyd Richards after his teacher recommended him due to his strong work in class.

“All of it came from my work ethic, which is what we got out of home,” he said. “I always say, ‘People may be more talented than me, but ain’t nobody gonna outwork me.’”

Vance recognized how Mary Alice — along with the rest of the show’s cast — took him under her wing. He also reflected on the lessons he learned from Hughes’s show in playing the character of Corey.

“You got to take the best of what’s in somebody, and that’s all you got to make a life with,” Vance said. “The rest of it, you got to let go.”

Vance eventually ventured into the realm of television and film. “It's easier for stage actors to learn how to be smaller than for film actors to hit the back wall,” he said when discussing the difference between acting in theater versus film.

One of Vance’s roles was Reverend Henry Biggs in Director Penny Marshall’s 1996 film “The Preacher’s Wife,” where he starred alongside Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Gregory Hines, and Jenifer Lewis.

“For me to end up with the role and with Penny Marshall and Denzel and Whitney, God rest her soul — and Penny, God rest her soul, she gone too — I’m grateful,” Vance said.

Throughout his career, Vance has maintained a committed dedication to his art, always pushing himself to fully realize his characters and perfect his performances. However, he recognizes that he can’t fully succeed without strong teamwork alongside his co-stars and crew.

“Everything’s collaborative, and what we do, it’s all a team effort. ” Vance said. “Everybody doesn’t have that approach. Some people come into the business for many different reasons. People come in because they want to be a star, and they want to make a lot of money, and they wanna, whatever, but you got to go through the prison — the sieve — of collaboration. It's, ‘You got to work with me,’” he said. “If we’re on camera, if you ain’t good, I’m not good.”

Vance is the current president and chairman of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation Board — an organization dedicated to offering support, resources, and education to SAG-AFTRA members and their communities. Vance leads by example, demonstrating how his passion for acting has changed the trajectory of his life.

—Staff writer Makayla I. Gathers can be reached at makayla.gathers@thecrimson.com.

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