Irma P. Hall didn’t plan for a career in the movies. While many actors move to Hollywood, wait tables and hit the audition circuit, Ms. Hall was busy teaching French, Spanish and English in Dallas at Booker T. Washington Technical High School among other places. It wasn’t until a director spotted her at the relatively ripe age of 36 and asked her to read for a part in his movie that the wheels were set in motion for an acting career that includes dozens of film and television roles.
“I said, ‘God, just let me make enough money to last me until I get to 62 and I can get my Social Security,’” Ms. Hall, now 73, said during a telephone interview this week. “It turned out that it must have been what I was supposed to do, because the work kept increasing and increasing. At 62, I don’t even remember what I was doing, but I was nowhere around to get my Social Security. In fact, I couldn’t even apply for it until I was 67 – I was too busy working!”
Soon after those checks started coming in, Ms. Hall was involved in a serious car accident in Chicago in that forced her to move back to Dallas so that her daughter could help care for her. Thinking that her film career was pretty much over (as it turns out, it wasn’t), Ms. Hall, along with Regina Washington and Vince McGill, formed African-American Repertory Theater to serve as the house company for DeSoto’s Corner Theater. In September, AART marked its debut with Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, and on Thursday, the company will open the one-woman play Neat.
During a wide-ranging conversation, Ms. Hall discussed her later-life purpose, her vision as AART’s artistic director, and why teaching and acting aren’t really all that different after all:
Art&Seek: After all of your years working in film and television, what attracted you to the idea of coming to North Texas to co-found African-American Repertory Theater?
Irma P. Hall: “When I was here before years ago, I co-founded the Dallas Minority Repertory Theater. I guess I had been thinking, “What am I supposed to do now that I’m here?” I hadn’t thought I would be doing film work again. I was approached to re-create the role of Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun for a fundraiser. The young lady, Regina Washington – who was playing Beneatha — and I would be talking because she would come and get me. And I said, “I know I’m supposed to be doing something while I’m here, because God always moves you and puts you where he wants you for a reason. Maybe I’m supposed to resurrect Dallas Minority Repertory Theater again, because there are a lot of young actors who do need a place to be working on their craft?”
A&S: Your next show, Neat, is a play about a young woman coming of age and living out the life lessons passed along to her by her aunt. What about this show made it a good fit for African-American Repertory Theater?
I.H.: I was introduced to it through the young man who has been directing most of our plays now [William Earl Ray], and when I read over it I thought let’s have Regina look over this, because it looks like her. And she read it and really enjoyed it and wanted to do it. It is in keeping with what we’re trying to do.
A&S: Following Neat, you plan to produce A Raisin in the Sun in March. Will you be returning to the stage?
I’ll be doing Lena again. The first time we did it, it wasn’t our theater who had done it. There were a lot of people who wanted to know if we were going to do it again, because they didn’t get a chance to see it. So we have an opportunity to do it now.
A&S: Do you plan to continue to act in some of the theater’s shows going forward?
I.H.: Yes. I’m going to try to do one or two of the things we do every year to help us grow. A lot of people know who I am, so my visibility lends some credibility and will help us grow, I think.
A&S: What other plays do you have on your wish list as artistic director?
I.H.: Several of the August Wilson plays … What I am concerned about is a lot of the historic African-American plays. All of the plays that we intend to do will not be African-American plays, but a lot of them will be, because I feel that there’s a need for that as far as the young African-American actors are concerned. They don’t know about them – they’ve never seen them. They’ve read them, but they haven’t gotten a chance to do them.
A&S: You are still active in filmmaking – how do you balance that work with your job as artistic director of the theater?
I.H.: Well, I’m not doing anything else. I’m 73, I’m at home most of the time. It surprised me that I was still doing film work. It turned out that I worked all this summer on two films. That came as a complete surprise to me. Theater is like the mother – it’s the basis. It’s a thing that I am very interested in, and I want to stay involved in it. I plan to do some workshops on acting and try and give back as much as I can. My grandmother said that when you are born, you’re like an empty vase, and while you are growing, people are putting flowers into that vase to determine what you’ll be. And there comes a time when you have to empty your vase into other vases. You don’t want to leave here with your vase filled full, and I’m trying to empty my vase.
A&S: Your most famous film role is probably as Marva Munson in 2004’s The Ladykillers directed by the Coen Brothers. How was your experience making that film?
I.H.: It was a wonderful experience working with Tom Hanks. We bonded. I bond easily, I guess. I say that I have all these godchildren – God sends them to me – and he’s become one as well as the Coen Brothers.
A&S: Before you became an actress full time, you taught in Dallas schools for many years. Do you ever think about how different your life would have been had you just stuck with teaching?
I.H.: No, because it’s an extension of the teaching – it’s just teaching in a different way. I’m a part of a storytelling group all the time. It’s like parables, you know? To me, it’s another form of teaching – just a larger classroom.
The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.
Irma Hall photo from concreteloop.
The Ladykillers photo courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.