A RISING STAR "LIGHTS UP" THE WORLD
by Stan Griffin, Deaf Friends International Special Contributor
Michelle Banks is a busy young woman who has exhibited "outstanding leadership" in the arena of Black Deaf entertainment and culture. She was the first deaf student to study drama at the State University of New York. She established the first (and only!) Deaf theater of color: Onyx Theater. She is one of a "rare breed": a Black Deaf actress featured in a Black television show on a cable network ("Soul Food" on Showtime). In addition, Michelle has toured several U. S. cities in her one-woman show, "Reflections of A Black Deaf Woman" and has appeared in movies and on stage (one role was in the recent revival of "Big River" featuring a unique cast with both hearing and deaf performers).
Michelle was born and raised in Washington, D. C. with her parents and an older brother. She became the only deaf member of her family at the age of one year after a case of spinal meningitis. As soon as her mother and father realized she was deaf, they immediately took sign language classes so it would be possible for them to communicate with each other.
Starting at age three, Michelle was schooled on the Gallaudet campus. She started at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and then was promoted to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf. It was there she was encouraged by the director, Tim McCarthy, to develop her growing interest in theater. Finally she entered Gallaudet University itself.
In 1987 Michelle transferred to the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase. She believed New York was a " ... better place for theater ..." so she enrolled in their school of drama and became the first deaf student. After a struggle, she won the right to have an interpreter in her classes. She made some good friends before getting her degree.
Michelle has had a prolonged association with the National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA). Her first involvement with them was as a contestant in their Washington Area pageant (1986). After relocating to New York, she became an active member of the New York City BDA and remained for 11 years. She served several terms as a Board Member, was secretary and choreographer for NBDA pageant dance routines at Atlanta and Los Angeles, and coordinated entertainment for several NBDA conferences.
When Michelle moved cross-country to California, she joined the Los Angeles BDA and served as their Cultural Director, even after her career began to blossom.
In 1990, while in her senior year at SUNY, Michelle formed her own theater company. She named it "Onyx," and it is the only Deaf theater of color in the country. Why Onyx? " ... (It’s) a black stone–the black represents people of color, and the stone represents deafness." It is a group of " ...deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors of color ..." Performances are in American Sign Language and spoken English. " ... Hearing actors ... reverse interpret, sometimes on stage, sometimes off."
Michelle’s breakthrough role came in 2002 when she was cast on "Soul Food," a Showtime program. A year earlier, she had contacted the show’s executive producer to propose the addition of a deaf character. They took her at her word, and she got the part! She has also appeared in a UPN series, "Girlfriends," and in "Strong Medicine." Her movie credits include "Malcolm X" and "Compensation" in which she starred.
Michelle Banks–award-winning actress and director– will no doubt continue
to be an important force in her world for years to come.
© Stan Griffin, Deaf Friends International
"NBDA Member Michelle Banks Takes on Hollywood," NATIONAL BLACK ADVOCATE, Feb. 2004
"Actress Michelle Banks Gets Pioneering Role in New TV Show," Rosalinda Ricara, LAURENT CLERC NATIONAL DEAF EDUCATION CENTER, Sept. 27, 2002
"Michelle Banks," CREATIVE ACCESS, Feb. 2004
"Michelle Banks–Deaf African American Entertainer," Jamie Berke, WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DEAFNESS/HARD OF HEARING, Jan. 2004
"Deaf Actress Lights Up Stage and Screen," Ken Kurtychek, WORLD AROUND YOU, March/April, 1998