(Note: The speech was the keynote address delivered at the Southern Methodist University Black Alumni History Makers scholarship reception on 9 February 2013)
Hello! It is truly an honor and a privilege to speak to you this evening. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Jerrika Hinton and you may recognize me from such seminal works as That Girl In That One McDonald’s Commercial About Football. Or: That Girl That Dies In That One Movie That Keeps Playing On TV One. Or, most recently: That Doctor Girl In That One TV Show About Doctors. Yes, it’s true I’ve done a lot.
Tonight we honor history makers—exemplary women and men who exhibit a remarkable commitment to their field and the lives of others. I’ve often wondered, when I sit where you do, What were the series of events that created that individual? How can I get myself closer to that? How can I approximate that path in my own life? And I’ve found that frequently it’s a matter of character.
I grew up in the heart of Dallas, right across the Trinity River in a diverse neighborhood called Oak Cliff. Oak Cliff is where I first took the stage in a preschool Christmas production at Tom Thumb Nursery. It’s also home to Margaret B. Henderson Elementary, the place where I wrote comedic sketches for my girl scout troop and even, as a young black girl, danced Ballet Folklorico. Oak Cliff’s breadth of culture and possibilities provided a fundamental backdrop for the trajectory my life has taken.
Well, Oak Cliff and my parents. I was blessed with a supportive mother and father who allowed the personal agency to design a life that best fit me—a life of intellectual and cultural curiosity that, in turn, buoyed a strong artistic voice. From an early age, that desire for a diversity of experience hounded me.In fact, I distinctly remember a spirited ‘conversation’ with my mother outside of a Dallas Children’s Theater audition when I was very young: For the audition we children were to interact in small groups and do some light scene work. My mother found a quiet corner and gave me a key piece of advice, “Now Jerrika, remember. Remember to be happy and be peppy.” She knew that’s what the theatre was looking for because, well, child actors.
I looked into my mother’s beautiful brown eyes, weighing her infinite wisdom against my ten years of life, and proclaimed: “I don’t want to be peppy, I don’t want to be happy. I want to be me!”
I didn’t get that job. Obviously. But the experience itself exhibited great strength of character. I don’t want to be flat and fragmented. I want more. I want to share my voice.
Thankfully, I eventually learned how to finely tune said voice. An early turning point in the tuning process was the choice to attend magnet schools not only because of the quality of education but because I was given a choice to funnel through our neighborhood system or pursue something different.
It was at magnet fairs—booths, pamphlets, every school pitching themselves—that the weight of my future zoomed into focus. “Where will I spend the next two years; where will I spend the next four?” became a far less important question than, “What kind of person am I going to be?”
So I went to what was called a Career Exploration Academy. It was the kind of place that taught autonomy by allowing us the experience of running a business. At eleven years old. Once a year, our Home Economics class turned into a full-fledged restaurant for a single evening – cooks, cashiers, waiters, hostesses, busboys, the whole shebang. My high school, TAG Magnet, orchestrated retreats to explore marine biology and astronomy or just go camp in Big Bend. They even lent logistical support when I started a small theatre company at sixteen.
The kind of person I wanted to be meant strengthening my artistry by taking an active interest in variety of arenas. Because of that I was fortunate enough to get a small taste of what it means to do what I do now at an early age. How to run my business; how to self-direct; how to ADULT.
When it came time to choose a college, I employed the same strategy. DePaul University (where I would be solely an actor) or SMU (where I could study directing and playwriting as well as continue to act concurrently)? Again I took a broader approach and my cultural pursuits fed my creative endeavors which in turn provided fuel for my grey matter. I was like an Ouroboros of artistic energy.
From the moment I set foot on campus, I knew the institution of SMU was capable of providing the diversity of experience I needed. Student life, however, would prove more challenging. The cultural segmentation that seemed so natural was a shock for me. When I think about my college years, what I remember most is the way I decided to take an active part in curating my experience.
Becoming chairwoman of one of the more niche student organizations like the Black Awareness Committee before my freshman year even ended allowed me to bring to campus the people and events I found both interesting and edifying. Over in Meadows: I remember the shows I performed in but what I remember most are the feminist festivals I produced & directed and the sociopolitical plays I wrote that received main-stage production.
Because SMU and Meadows School of the Arts allowed me to expand my focus, I learned how to collaborate, how to give and receive constructive feedback, how to work with people and their ideas; overall, how to be a better artist and human being. Being deliberate and curious about shaping my own experience enhanced my quality of life here and I hope it did the same for the classmates around me.
Bringing all of that experience to Los Angeles is, without a doubt, what gave me an uncharacteristically successful launching pad. It’s also what gave me the backbone to confidently rebuff casting directors who ask me to “do it again, but a bit more sister-girl” or “you know the way you talk with your girlfriends” and every form of doublespeak I encounter.
It’s not easy to maintain a space of creative freedom in my industry. There have been plenty of grey areas. Specifically, the time I was considered for a role in a large dramatic feature film. It was a movie full of men with only two women in the entire thing: One was the white object of their affections who never spoke a single line of dialogue and the other, the woman that actually did interact with them, was simply named Black Hooker.
This film full of strong male characters with conflicting personalities and agendas and Black Hooker. That’s all she got to be not just to the characters but for the writer, director and producers as well. I spent several days debating whether or not I should audition, questioning the larger narrative I’d support if I got cast.
I went. I’m not proud of it but I did because it came down to this: creating a portrayal of her that would make her a whole person. Around day two of the debate found a way to give her a brain and agency. So at least, if I got cast, she’d be a whole person. I didn’t get cast.
There’s a funny thing that happens to people of character who spend their lives relentlessly curious and hungry for information. We begin to experience the world in ways others cannot. And even though actors play all kinds of roles, I realized it was important to me to create room for a particular kind of voice and vision.
So, with twenty some-odd years of acting experience, a few years of directing under my belt, years of writing, countless years of leadership that funneled into experiences as a theatre producer — I produced, wrote and directed my first film, The Strangely Normal. It was a labor of love financed solely by my producing partner and myself, created to spotlight that particular voice and present it to a wider audience. It’s a short film that has done well on the festival circuit and garnered enough attention that I now receive offers to direct the films of other budding artists.
Then there’s my day job as Dr. Stephanie Edwards on Grey’s Anatomy. The writers of the show allow a co-ownership of the characters we portray. That means, when I go to work, I get to keep alive that spirit of exploration that has been so fundamental to my progress. We have conversations about what defines my character and the best ways to convey that to the audience. I am beyond fortunate to not just be a performer but a co-creator.
It keeps me working towards that next thing which, right now, is as simple wanting to be better today than I was yesterday. Because as fortunate as I am to be The Doctor Girl On That One TV Show About Doctors, I look forward to being That Writer Lady Who Just Inked A Deal For Her Second Film. Or That One Woman Who Speaks French And Learned To Play The Accordion Because C’mon It’s An Accordion Y’all.
Diversify your experiences. Lean into that childhood instinct to explore. Curiosity can only lend authority to your voice and bolster your character. You are at a place in your life that is primed for it…and I’m not just speaking to the current students. Because I would love, one day, for one of you to be That One Person Who Stood On Stage That One Time hoping to inspire us all.