I feel inadequate as I begin to write these words. I feel incapable of capturing what was so very special about Kenneth Washington. Numerous testimonies on Facebook speak to Ken Washington’s brilliance, compassion, leadership, and grace. The stories I’ve read there have been humorous, tragic, and everything in between. They show so many sides of this incredible man. A man who changed so many lives, including my own.
If legacy is measured in lives altered, then Ken Washington’s legacy is enormous in proportion. Some of his students are still in training, some are acting across the nation, some are teaching other artists, and some have chosen different professions altogether. But one thing, the hundreds of us, have in common is that Ken unleashed our dreams. He believed in our potential and in our capacity to succeed. He did everything he could to make us feel special and of value. He made us thinking artists and in the process made us better people.
Often when I think of Ken, I hear my father’s voice. He proudly referred to Ken as “the black man who chose you for the program.” He was doubly proud. Proud that I’d been chosen and proud that a black man had done the choosing. I came to study at the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A Actor Training Program with my best friend. We saw in Ken a reflection of who we could be. We were young, gifted, black, filled with dreams, and here was this black man at the helm of one of the finest training programs in the country.
We immediately, against his will, adopted him as family and treated him as such. Throughout the course of our training we’d show up at his office every Monday. It was a standing tradition, we’d show up, Ken would pretend to be far too busy, but would always make time to hear about our lives.
And the truth is, I never stopped showing up at Ken’s door, even well after graduation, and Ken never stopped making time to hear me out. He would give me an article he’d set aside for me, tell me about this new play I should read, and offer his advice on any concern I had. He always knew what I had just done, was doing, or what was coming up. He kept his eye on me. Somehow in his busy non-stop life, he kept his eyes on all of his students. No matter where we were in our trajectory, we could rely on Ken to be our greatest advocate and if needed, our most exacting mentor.
We of the BFA program, during our tenure, got brief amazing glimpses of his brilliance. Ken was mysterious to many of us and reserved in his praise. In many a presentation in the Kilburn Arena at the Rarig Center, Ken would arrive moments before curtain and take his place in a back corner. He’d observe mostly in silence, but sometimes, there would be a chuckle or audible “mmm” that would fill a young actor with pride.
In our Junior year, upon our return from London, we would begin “Journey” work with Ken. Journey work was an amorphous, complex, hard to describe experience. Ken would lead us in acting exercises that required us to walk down the line of our lives; past, present, and future. While we did this in our own corners, Ken would walk among us, holding the space, despite our errant chuckles and/or whimpers.
Or, during another of his exercises, he’d watch us struggle through conversations with our actual self, our actor self, and our character self. These exercises were confusing and sometimes frustrating, but every BFA I know swears that you don’t understand them until years later. Which makes sense, because Ken’s lessons on acting and on life live with you. They stay with you until one day they click. That was his magic. He planted a seed, and unknown to you, it flourished and became clear right when you needed it.
He was always there, each performance, each presentation, and at every Guthrie audition. He sat there, behind the table, yet always on your side. And in our final exit audition, he always knew what question to ask or what comment to add, that would make you shine. He made sure you understood, that moment, in that room, was only the beginning of so much more, that the world was yours for the taking. Whatever your dream was, or became, he was there to send you down the right path, connect you to the right people, and offer the right words.
There are countless graduates of the U of M/Guthrie program, The Guthrie Experience, the University of Utah, Julliard, NYU, and so many other institutions whose lives were made better by Ken Washington’s presence. I think of local artists like Randy Reyes and Michelle O’Neill who are two of the finest actors, directors, teachers, and people I’ve ever known, and Ken was their extraordinary teacher, mentor, and friend. They represent the potential that Ken saw in all of his students. And his legacy lives in them the way that it lives in every student who heard the power in his pauses, and the wisdom in his words. In every student that got the call inviting you to Minnesota. In every student that was stumped by a question he’d ask about your character. In every student that got to hear his musings over a happy hour cocktail. In every student that learned to read his expressions and identify the twinkle in his eye. In every student whose heart is breaking at his passing.
We mourn the loss of Kenneth Washington but we revel in the lessons he taught and the compassion he offered. Ken, on behalf of so many, Thank You! Your words live on and a whole generation of artists and people are better for having known you.
Note: There will be a memorial service to honor and remember Ken Washington at the Guthrie Theater on the Wurtele Thrust Stage on Thursday, December 11th at 3:00 pm. Marcela Lorca, Randy Reyes and Michelle O’Neill are planning the service.
In New York, former students are also planning a celebration of Ken's life for Monday, December 8. More information here.