David Alan Grier with Leigh Woods and Daniel Washington
David Alan GrierTheatre Students in AudienceGrier with two theatre studentsAudience member

David Alan Grier
Takes Five

Theatre Alum Tells Students to Follow Their Hearts

by Mira Elise Stanley, theatre arts, class of 2012

David Alan Grier, LSA  '78 (speech communications), visited Ann Arbor last fall, on a promotional tour for his new book, Barack Like Me. While in town, he found the time to visit the Department of Theatre & Drama.

A Detroit native, David Alan Grier came to the University of Michigan in 1974 with no clear idea of what he wanted to pursue. His revelatory moment came during a University production of Othello. Grier was playing the character he calls “the other black guy.” While delivering his single line—“a message from the galleys”—he thought, “Ah! This is what I want to do!”

“I found something I think I could spend my life doing,” he says, “and grow old doing it.”

Since his mother “forbade” him from getting a degree in theatre, he decided on a bachelor’s in radio, film, and television. After finishing his degree at Michigan, Grier went on to earn a master’s at the Yale School of Drama.

Grier’s career has been remarkable both for its sheer variety and for its individual accomplishments. In 1981, he earned a Tony Award nomination and Theatre World Award for his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in The First. He won a Golden Lion Award for Best Actor at the Film Festival for his work in Robert Altman’s 1983 film Streamers. Among his many Broadway performance credits are Dreamgirls, A Soldier’s Play, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He has also acted in the films The Woodsman, Boomerang, Bewitched, and Jumanji.

He is perhaps most famous for his work on the television show In Living Color, popular in the early 1990s. In 2008, he returned to television as host, writer, and executive producer of Comedy Central’s The Chocolate News.

At the time Grier visited Ann Arbor, he was touring with his first book Barack Like Me: The Chocolate Covered Truth, an exploration of race, culture, and politics that includes both elements of autobiogra­phy and fiction. He was also about to begin rehearsals for David Mamet’s new play Race, currently playing on Broadway.

During a Q&A session at the Arthur Miller Theatre, Grier spoke to students about his career and his time at the University of Michigan. When asked to give advice to aspiring actors, Grier said: “This is where you should just throw yourself against the wall and do everything … if they are not doing it, do it for yourself.”

“I did everything while I was here,” Grier said. “The variety of opportunities, the variety of exposure to different art forms in Ann Arbor and in that school environment was awesome. All of that helped form and expand my idea of what an artist does.”

His message to students is one of empowerment, “Define yourself. Be proactive. Why would you leave yourself at the mercy of others?”

Grier’s approach is echoed in the types of artists he is most drawn to: those who carve their own path and challenge the status quo. Sometimes such a strategy is not only desirable but necessary. Grier referenced his own experiences as an African American pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, facing its marginalizing treatment of the black character (e.g. as the maid, the butler, the neighbor).

He also talked about how he has seen that role evolve over the course of his career into something more prominent and less rigidly defined. “What I love and what I’d like is to have the world in which I live represented on television”—something he believes is now being achieved with more frequency.

“Every time something amazing has happened … it’s always been—all right I’m going to do this because it’ll be fun and it’ll be interesting,” he says. “It’s probably not going to make it, but I’m going to do it anyway. And when I’ve tried to go the other way and make a pragmatic or monetary judgment, it’s always blown up in my face.”

Among Grier’s many successes, his greatest might simply be the fact that he has arrived at a point in his career where doing what he loves is possible and sustainable. The rapt attention of the theatre students during Grier’s talk, as well as their enthusiasm to meet and chat with him after the session, made it clear that they saw him as an inspirational figure. For them (and for me, too) he is one of those all-too-rare examples of someone who loves his work fully.

When asked what is most important to him about his work, Grier says “That it means something to me. I’m the one who has to live with it.”

This just in!

Grier Nominated for a Tony for Best Actor in a Play!

Since visiting Ann Arbor, Grier appeared in David Mamet’s new play Race. It was just announced that he has been nominated for Best Actor in a Play for his performance. Some comments from the media: “[Grier’s] skills as a comedian are held at bay to show off his impressive dramatic chops.”—The Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune commented on “the brilliant matching of the richly contrasting Grier and [James] Spader” … “both of whom are excellent.”