By Gloria Mann
I began doing local theatre at The San Diego Repertory Theatre. I also participated in master classes led by various directors affiliated with this theatre, as did other aspiring local actors. One of the actors I met there became an especially good friend. Karen was incredibly talented, and like all of us in those days, worked non-acting jobs to make ends meet. She was a single mother who also acted, wrote and then washed dishes at a local restaurant. We both lived in the same neighborhood and she often babysat my daughter. She is an incredibly generous spirit.
To me, Karen was someone who always overcame the odds stacked against her, even if it meant going against what everyone else was telling her. She trusted in herself and her talent first and foremost.
One time, she and I were especially excited to be enrolled in the same classical acting workshop with a particularly noted director. On the first day of class we entered the room together talking excitedly about how we were going to be able to stretch our acting muscles in this class. We already knew that the class was going to cover scenes from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Karen already had her heart set on playing the traditionally-male role of Hamlet herself. Why not? This was the sort of challenge that she set for herself. We sat down next to each other while the director welcomed everyone to the class.
Speaking in a very serious tone, he then announced that, “In this class, only men will be playing the male roles and women only playing female roles.” Without a beat, Karen, who would later become known as Whoopi Goldberg, stood up to leave. The director raised his voice. “Karen, where are you going?” She stopped, faced him and retorted, “Ain’t nobody going to cast me as Ophelia!” She then turned and walked out the door; the rest is history.
She then moved away from San Diego north to San Francisco and began working on her one-woman show. At that time, there weren’t many roles for young women of color. Whoopi wrote and acted in “The Spook Show,” her own, outrageous and poignant one-woman show. It was remarkable, brilliant and unconventional work, especially for those times, and many people took notice.
This stunning show brought her first to the Dance Theatre Workshop in New York City and then on to Broadway. I made the trip back east to see this talked-about show and to reconnect with my old friend. I attended this signature performance with her mother and watched from the standing-room only audience packed with celebrities, all wanting to witness this Whoopi woman who had taken New York by storm.
It was a very exciting time to see a friend and her work literally “fallen in love with” by everyone, critics, actors and audiences alike in New York. The City can be a very tough place in which to make it, but when it does bestow its blessings on someone it’s like they become royalty! I saw this myself backstage after the show. Watching Whoopi in her dressing room as she greeted each distinguished visitor for the first time was indeed like royalty receiving tribute. I was staying in a hotel but she insisted that I move over to her apartment and ended up staying with her for a whirlwind week.
Whoopi is one of the most authentic artists and human beings that I’ve ever met. She is daring, talented, humble and generous beyond what anyone has seen her do in film or on stage. Only one of ten people who have simultaneously won two Golden Globes, an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award, she is the second African American female performer to win an Academy Award for acting. Incredibly versatile, her career ranges from The Color Purple and Sister Act to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Hollywood Squares to The View. Her many humanitarian efforts include working for the acclaimed Comic Relief charity specials with comedic greats Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and many others. I cannot count how many times that I saw her take interest and stop for people in need on the street.
A completely self-made woman, Whoopi once asked me why I wanted to attend university for my graduate acting training. She thought that it might be a waste of time for me. I told her that I needed to be trained to develop my craft and technique that only the discipline of a graduate program could provide. I said to her jokingly, “I’m not Whoopi Goldberg; I have to be able to play all sorts of things.” She just gave me that familiar, wise and knowing look and said “Just don’t ever forget who you are!”
Whoopi refused to live or work inside a box. Instead, she created her own work. “If you build it they will come,” seemed to be her personal mantra, and boy did they come!