Heather Alicia Simms
Brooklyn native Heather Alicia Simms (SOA'96) has been interested in acting since her mother encouraged her to recite a poem in her first talent show at age four. A few years later she had her first role as the mother in "Hansel & Gretel" in an elementary school play.
Simms has come a long way over the years and this spring she made her Broadway debut alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton in August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." She is also featured on the big screen, in Chris Rock's directorial debut film, "Head of State."
Originally produced in 1984, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" takes place over a single day in 1927, in a Chicago recording studio. Singer Ma Rainey (Goldberg) has taken time off from touring to record several songs for a record company with whom she previously had financial success. The band's talented and temperamental trumpet player (Dutton) wants to move beyond his role as backup and aspires to have his own band, while facing the obstacles of developing black music in the white recording industry. Simms played the role of Dussie Mae, the love interest to both Dutton and Goldberg's characters.
"I could never have dreamed my career would take me in this direction," says Simms. "I couldn't ask for a better experience -- especially for my first Broadway play. I look at someone like Whoopi as my mentor. She does it all -- TV, movies, theater, producing. That's what I have always wanted to do."
To many it seems Simms has also "done it all." She is a versatile actress who has played numerous roles over the years in theater, movies and television. Her stage credits include: "Breath, Boom" (Playwrights Horizons/Yale Repertory), "Splash Hatch on the E Going Down" (NY Stage and Film) --both written by SOA alumna Kia Corthron -- "Insurrection" (The Public Theater), "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (Missouri Repertory Theatre), "Spunk" (Cincinnati Playhouse), and "Flyin' West" (Stamford TheatreWorks). Simms has also been featured in the films "Stompin' Down at Sugar Love's" and "Kings County." On television she has appeared in "Third Watch," "Homicide," "Law & Order" and "As the World Turns."
"I don't think you can teach anyone to act," says Simms. "Although you can enhance your skills -- that's what you go to school for. You have the gift and they teach you methods to enhance it. As an actor you will find you are a perpetual student. That may be one of the best and most humbling lessons after all."
"Andrei Serban and Anne Bogart were the two people who inspired me at Columbia," recalls Simms. "Their passion for their students was quite apparent. I believe that they teach because they love to and feel the need to keep the rich tradition of theater alive. I felt challenged and changed and grew stronger in my own convictions because of their guidance."
While pursuing her undergraduate degree in history and English at Tufts University, Simms realized that the drama department was not diverse in its repertoire and she created a successful Black Theater Company at the University. Now, one of Heather's biggest goals as an actress is to convince casting agents and directors to widen their perspective on the roles that black women are chosen to play.
"Being a Caribbean national, the challenge is that you know you can and desire to play a number of different characters with varying worldviews," she says. "There are black people living everywhere in the world. I can find a Jamaican restaurant anywhere in the world. So why not conceive of me representing the global diaspora by playing an Irish girl, or a German or Russian? As an actor, that's what I want to project."
What drew Simms to "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"? "I absolutely love August's work," she says. "When I was asked to audition for the role I had no idea who else would be in the cast. But the opportunity to be in any August Wilson play is not only a thrill for me as an actor, but it also satisfies the part of me that yearns to delve into the historical backdrop of a period piece. I've worked with the director, Marion McClinton, twice before so it was extremely gratifying to come to this place on my journey with a director that I have extreme respect and admiration for."
" 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' has been a huge blessing -- something I've worked toward for years," says Simms. "This is what all of the work was about."