Saturday, September 23, 2006

INTERVIEW - Sylvia Combs M’Lafi Thompson

Sylvia Combs M’Lafi Thompson is an actor that has a very strong presence in San Diego Theatre. She has never shied away from taking on roles that challenge her and provide a platform for growth, as a person and as an actor. She’s passionate, she’s articulate and she’s one of the best actors in the San Diego Theatre Scene.

Cuauhtémoc Q. Kish (CQK): Is San Diego home for you?

Sylvia Combs M’Lafi Thompson (SMT): Home will always be Chicago, were I was born and raised. That’s were my roots are planted. Although I’ve been in San Diego for 20+ years I spent 11 years in Washington D.C.

M’Lafi remembers a time in Chicago while growing up where there was an appreciation of the arts; a time where they actually employed art and music teachers. She remembers a time where young students would be taken to the Art Museum and the Symphony as part of the elementary curriculum. How sad that those days have been relegated to the past.

CQK: Married?

SMT: I have never been married and have no plans for any conventional marriage in the future. I’m simply “married to life” and that’s the best spouse to have. As a single person I maintain a great sense of freedom: it’s the most challenging and the most joyous at one and the same time.

M’Lafi believes that marriage is for individuals whose life issues include procreation as a top priority. Although she greatly admires those who can be natural caretakers for the world’s children, she especially who admires those who adopt. For M’Lafi, her kids will be limited to the ones with wagging tails.

CQK: At what age were you bitten by the acting bug?

SMT: It happened precisely on my 11th birthday when my parents took me to a production of the King and I. When I walked out of that production, acting was in my blood forever. I was taken aback by everything: the lights, the makeup, the stage design, the acting; how people could make you feel something onstage and then, offstage...

CQK: Do you come from a theatrical family?

SMT: My father was born in the Bahamas and had a deep baritone voice; he was the singer. On my Mom’s side of the family were the musicians, particularly those members playing the piano. I even have the piano that was gifted to my Mom from her father.

M’Lafi has an older brother and a younger sister and they were brought up in an environment that was underscored by the Civil Rights movement and all the poetry of that period. The elegant words of that period in history sang out to her and to her family and it simply became a part of their household.

CQK: So you were gifted with a musical voice?

SMT: (She chuckles a bit before answering) I can follow a tune and I have been able to “pull it off” when various directors have assigned me the task of singing in a production, but I wouldn’t call myself a gifted singer. In my next life I want the pipes of Patti LaBelle.

CQK: When did you make a decision to come to San Diego?

SMT: My Mom moved here and the rest of us migrated back to her.

CQK: Do you recall your first acting job in San Diego?

SMT: I auditioned for a part in Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap for the Fiesta Dinner Theatre and was immediately cast. This happened on December 19, 1993.

CQK: Has the theatre community grown since that time?

SMT: Although San Diego remains a city that’s not very progressive and doesn’t “think outside the box” like some other major cities, the theatre community has grown by leaps and bounds.

M’Lafi’s earlier ambition was to be a writer/journalist. She thinks that there is a novel in her but M’Lafi proclaims that she’s simply not old enough to write it yet. M’Lafi has continued to write personal journals throughout her entire life (I’d love to get my hands on them!) and she may use these as an assist for that future novel. These journals include periods in her life when things were “heavy,” when she discovered a more spiritual side of herself, and the Civil Rights movement. Don’t worry; to protect the innocent along with the not-so-innocent, M’Lafi will advise in her Last Will and Testament that all her journals are to be burnt down to paper ashes. M’Lafi doesn’t dwell in the past. She believes that if you have one foot in the past and the other in the future, you are not doing anything in the now. She believes you need to be centered with the present.

CQK: You’ve managed to pay the rent with a job in the arts, while still having the flexibility to participate as an actor in San Diego.

SMT: I’ve been fortunate to have two careers in the arts; one in Arts Management and the other as an actor. I began my career in Arts Management in DC and I’ve continued that line of work in San Diego. I’m an advocate for the arts and am blessed to work for the Commission for Arts and Culture offering project, management and research tech support for forums and such. It provides me much needed structure in my life but allows me the flexibility to perform.

CQK: Who has been a big influence in your life?

SMT: Alvin Ailey, a man who has devoted his life to the arts. And...the city of Washington D. C. When I was living in DC there was a tremendous renaissance going on that was like an explosion. There was art all over the place. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was a time when...for a few dollars you could listen to artists like Roberta Flack and Herbie Hancock. It was a time when the DC Black Rep Theatre was providing great theatre to the public. It was a time when the National Endowment for the Arts was allowing artists to do the work they believed in. Oh, the good ol’ days—I hate to use it in the past tense—it puts a smile on my face. What’s missing now is a certain warmth and hospitality. After a weekend in this city their art experience showed on their faces; people were full.

CQK: What remains one of your fondest memories in the theatre?

SMT: A production that I participated in called Boesman and Lena. This Athol Fugard play had a tremendous impact on me. It offered me a beautiful, challenging role that was a cathartic experience and allowed me to work with a wonderful South African actor, M’Phela Makoba, who I haven’t been able to locate in recent years.

Sylvia was last seen at a reading of August Wilson’s Fences at Cygnet Theatre Company in August. Prior to that reading she was in Moxie Theatre’s production of Gibson Girls at Diversionary Theatre. M’Lafi returns to the REP shortly to begin rehearsals for Ms. Witherspoon. She was also seen in the REP’s last season in both Restless Spirits and Intimate Apparel. Thompson is a member of Actor’s Equity Association and last year received the San Diego Playbill 2005 “Billie Award” for her portrayal of Teiresias in Dr. Marianne McDonald’s adaptation of the Greek classic Antigone. Other credits include:
Dog Act (Moxie Theatre); A Raisin in the Sun, Before It Hits Home, Fences, Vagina Monologues, One Hundred Thousand Dollar Mulatto (Lyceum Theatre); Antigone (6th@Penn); Othello (San Diego Women’s Rep); A Streetcar Named Desire, Nuevo California (SD Rep); Going to St. Ives (La Jolla Playhouse) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Old Globe).

CQK: Is there anyone out there you are dying to work with?

SMT: Before he died, I wanted to work with the great director, John Cassevettes. And I would love to work with Morgan Freeman Jr. who can do just about anything as an actor.

CQK: Is there a director that you particularly admire in this town?

SMT: I admire Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, most especially, for her bravery in choosing new works.

CQK: Where’s your retreat?

SMT: Inside myself.

CQK: What’s the biggest challenge in your life right now?

SMT: Time.

CQK: What’s a perfect day for M’Lafi?

SMT: Waking up and being able to listen to the sounds of birds chirping, a cup of Chamomile tea, fresh fruit, music, reading the New York Times, a breakfast tray in bed with my pajamas still on, windows open; listening to the wind chimes, with my furry creatures at my feet...and no phone.

CQK: What motivates you?

SMT: Waking up.

CQK: At the end of a day, what does the word accomplishment mean to you?

SMT: It’s the feeling of having done something for someone else and the hope I have done the very best I could do that day.

Sylvia has received the Los Angeles Dramalogue award for best actress for her roles in Boesman and Lena and Stories about the Old Days. Some film and PBS narration credits include A Day Without A Mexican, AIDS and Brown Women and Sweet Honey in the Rock. She has also appeared at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D. C., and the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem.

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical word?

SMT: Encore.

CQK: If somehow you made the wrong turn and ended up facing the devil, what would you say to him?

SMT: Get thee behind me Satan; you have no power over me.

CQK: How would you sum up everything you’ve learned in life to date?

SMT: It just gets better.

CQK: What’s your most cherished quality?

SMT: My imagination.

CQK: What’s your most difficult challenge?

SMT: Learning how to put myself first.

CQK: What’s your biggest fear?

SMT: Dying before I’m very old.

Sylvia Combs M’Lafi Thompson is a passionate individual. She remains passionate about theatre. She remains passionate about South Africans having more choices so more will support San Diego. She remains passionate about the need for more than one black playwright per decade such as the late August Wilson. There are African American playwrights that need to be produced; more than just one that can be heralded as a great playwright during a limited period. Theatre, for M’Lafi, is an opportunity for all colors and races to learn about the human condition. It’s a way to discover herstory and history. M’Lafi feels lucky to be able to participate in San Diego Theatre. She just completed a successful two night reading of Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson’s Fences at Cygnet Theatre and will be in rehearsals shortly for Ms. Witherspoon to open at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in October, but she also reminds us that to be enlightened by theatre is simply not enough. M’Lafi encourages—no; challenges—artists to register one new voter in the next election and assist one senior citizen to the poles. In this way, she says, we can and will make a difference.


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