Donzaleigh Abernathy ‘80 on Making it as a Triple Threat

November 29, 2022

Thumbnail of Donzaleigh Abernathy for the Making it Big in 30 Minutes Podcast

Donzaleigh Abernathy chose Emerson because she wanted to go to school where people would learn and know her name. Flash forward after many years as a working actress, activist, and writer, and people in airports know her name! She joins Georgette to talk about life as an artist, growing up during the Civil Rights movement with its creators, and the importance of the connections she made during her Emerson days. Recorded on August 9, 2022.

Find more of Donzaleigh on IG @donzaleighabernathy and https://donzaleigh.com/.

More of Georgette at https://www.georgettepierre.com/.

Transcript: Season 5, Episode 8

Donzaleigh Abernathy


Georgette Pierre:
What does it mean to make it big? Well, it depends on who you ask. And we did. Welcome to Making it Big in 30 minutes, a podcast for, by and about the Emerson community. You're about to meet an Emersonian who's making it. Making a living, making a difference, and sometimes making it up as they go. I'm your host and alum Georgette Pierre. If you like what you hear, subscribe and share with your friends and meet me and other Emersonians over on Emerge, the only digital platform exclusive to the Emerson community. Go to emerge.emerson.edu for more.


Donzaleigh Abernathy is an actor and the daughter of activist, Mrs. Juanita Jones Abernathy. And Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, co-founder of the American Civil Rights Movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Donzaleigh's acting credits have spanned TV networks, including Lifetime, HBO and NBC, as well as films for New Line Cinema and Lionsgate. Growing up in a household that was instrumental in the fight for civil rights, Donzaleigh's vision became very clear. We dive deeper into her childhood growing up, what led her to acting and how she's still committed to the work instilled in her. I welcome Donzaleigh Abernathy on making it as a triple threat.

Donzaleigh, thank you so much for being here.

Donzaleigh Abernathy:
Yeah, thank you Georgette. It's an honor. It's really an honor. Yeah.

Georgette:
Ditto, ditto, Ditto. Reading your rich history and all the things that you have been connected to, let's just jump right into it. So what's the lighthearted, quirkiest way to describe your profession?

Donzaleigh:
Oh my God. I'm struggling actress, and I've been that way since I was at Emerson. And that's it. We all are. Struggling working actor. We work. So yeah.

Georgette:
So wait, is struggling a good or bad thing on the way that you're describing it?

Donzaleigh:
Well, it's a good thing because all of us struggle in this game. It doesn't matter whether you've won an Academy Award or whether you are just at the beginning of your career. They're the highs and the lows that everyone endures and...

Georgette:
Absolutely.

Donzaleigh:
... I wouldn't trade it for thing. Absolutely not. No.

Georgette:
I could definitely relate to navigating highs and lows as I've been going through my own. What surprises you most about the work you're doing now?

Donzaleigh:
That I have to play old ladies. That when I go into makeup and hair, I look worse when I come out and that's unnerving. The other part is you still have to audition over and over and over again and you get rejected more than you get accepted or approved. And I guess for a lot of people they consider quitting and giving up, because you want a better house, a better place, a better lifestyle. And I can't blame anyone for choosing that. I can't do that. I'm an artist. It's in my DNA. There's nothing I can do about it.

I mean, I have tried to do other things and I do other things to supplement my income. I do a lot of public speaking and that's wonderful. It doesn't feed my soul the same way as it does for me to do an audition and then to delve into a part and to find all these things. I was up until two o'clock in the morning thinking and planning the inner life of my character that will just be like a blip on screen. I shoot on Thursday and I'll shoot for the next 23 days and that'll be nice.

And then there is the lull that will come. And for some people you'll, it'll be a continual cycle. I know at one point when I was younger, it was a continual cycle. So I worked on a TV show and then when I had time off I did TV movies and then it was about finding time to go and be with my family. And as far as your social life, it just goes out the window unless you're obliged to go to events that your publicist has created for you. And you're like, "Okay, so I'm on the red carpet, I'll do this thing really fast... Do the picture and then I'm out because I've got to be on set. I got to get up early in the morning and I'm on set at, I don't know, 5:30, six o'clock in makeup and hair." And if you don't get enough sleep, then you have bags under your eyes and then you're going to have to work a 12 hour day, sometimes a 14 hour day and lunch will come. And that's when you want to sleep.

Georgette:
I know by the time they hear this, the project that you are working on you would've already filmed. Is it something that you can share? The project that's going to have you on set for almost a month. Is that going to be out?

Donzaleigh:
It's great. It's 9-1-1. It's a television show.

Georgette:
Oh yeah.

Donzaleigh:
Yeah. So I'm going to be working with Angela Bassett.

Georgette:
Bassett, mm-hmm. Congrats.

Donzaleigh:
I mean, it'll be great. It's fast, versus a movie. Whereas when you're doing a film, it's easier. It's like they're going to keep working until we get it right. And you're only going to cover a few amount of pages, whereas in television you're going to do like five pages a day or more.

Georgette:
Yeah.

Donzaleigh:
And the pace is different.

Georgette:
And it's a procedural, if I'm not mistaken, or what they call a procedural...

Donzaleigh:
That particular show is a procedural. All the Dick Wolf things.

Georgette:
Yeah, right.

Donzaleigh:
Are procedurals. But then there are a lot of other shows that aren't. So I did a show for four years and that was not a procedural show, it was just each week a different story line. There's a character has an arc. But in this show that I'm going to do, it's about what happens to my character and my sister.

Georgette:
Okay.

Donzaleigh:
It's our drama.

Georgette:
Look forward to seeing that when it comes out. So congrats again on that. You had mentioned that there's other things that you do to supplement income, like public speaking and things of that nature. So you are the daughter of Miss Juanita Jones Abernathy and Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, both civil rights activists. With your father being the co-founder of the American Civil Rights Movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, what was instilled in you at such a young age and how does that show up in your work as an actor or even personally now?

Donzaleigh:
Well, oh my God, they were so amazing. And so our lives growing up were... It was incredible. When my mother was pregnant with me, our home was bombed. And so I came out of her womb and I trembled for six months and if I'm stressed, my fingers just start trembling and there's nothing I can do. The other day I didn't even know I was stressed, and this little finger, the ring finger, just kept going sideway. And I'm like, "Oh my God, Okay, I'm stressed." I don't know why. It's just how it manifests itself. It was wonderful growing up with Uncle Martin and, oh my God, I loved him so much. He was so much fun. But there was so much danger. And so every single day we received a death threat, a telephone call of a death threat. And it would usually come at dinner time and my mother would slam the phone down on the wall.

And for us as children, that was really frightening. Really, really, really frightening. When Medgar Evers had been killed in front of his children, we were told that the day would come when daddy wasn't going to come back in the house, and Uncle Martin wasn't going to come back in the house and that they were going to be gone. And that we as children had to do our part and that we were obliged to do it to make our world better. And the thing of it is, before daddy and Uncle Martin did this thing... Actually before my dad decided he was going to do this, because they thought he wasn't going to live to be 30, and then he brought Uncle Martin in with him. No one had successfully done anything in segregation in our nation and to improve the quality of life for black people. And so they had to do it.

And so after they were gone, I watched America change. And my dad always said to me, "We have to do our part. You have to do your part." I've got to speak for the city of Beverly Hills. And when I speak for the city of Beverly Hills, I will talk about race relations in our city and where we are and what we need to do to go forward. Because the majority of the tourists that are coming in here, they are diverse. So this city cannot be geared towards white people when the money that's basically coming in to sustain this city are coming from people of different races.

Georgette:
Very diverse. Yeah.

Donzaleigh:
Yeah. And so-

Georgette:
Well, it seems like what you saw and you doing your part just started showing up in multiple ways with you being involved in and outside of entertainment it feels like with the organizations you're involved in.

Donzaleigh:
But anyway, more importantly than anything becomes a choice. Are you going to sit back and be idle? And watch the world go by and are you only going to be concerned about me, myself, and I? Or are you going to give back? And so I have a moral obligation to give back to whom much is given, much is expected. And so I do everything I can in my power every single day to do something to help to make this world a better place. And unfortunately, my social media is all political.

Georgette:
I don't know if it's unfortunately, but that's just a choice that you chose that makes sense for you.

Donzaleigh:
And I find myself watching movies and the news and getting the Washington Post and the New York Times and finding out what's happening in the world and then ultimately I'm going to have an opinion about it. The other thing I did is I wrote a book, This is my book.

So this is Partners to History. And my foreword was written by Robert F. Kennedy Junior, and it's the history of the Civil Rights movement in photographs. And unfortunately also my book was pulled from library shelves. It was nominated by the American Library Association as one of the best books for young adults. They said the book was too scholarly, that's why I didn't get the win. Could I, "Dumb down," my book. And I was like, "Absolutely not. I'm not going to dumb it down."

You need to raise the level of intelligence of young people in America. We're not asking for them to be less. We're asking them to be more. Unfortunately, things changed a little bit prior to our brilliant President Biden. And we were asked to dumb down ourselves and seek the lowest common denominator and to not act as with honor, grace, and dignity and understanding and compassion for our fellow man and woman. And so now we are back at a place where we can actually do that and lift us up. We're at that battle again now. We're trying to have to pick women up and lift women up. We're going to have to fight. And we'll see what happens at the ballot box in November. It's very important that women stand up for women. We're the majority of the population of the world, yet we're on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Georgette:
Activism is running through your blood, through and through.

Donzaleigh:
Yeah.

Georgette:
I know earlier before we started the interview, we were talking about our Emerson experience and what Emerson meant to us. If you could go back in time to your Emerson self, what would you say?

Donzaleigh:
Keep going. And, yes, have a blast. Oh my gosh, I had a blast at Emerson. And learn as much as you possibly can. It was one thing, I loved my teachers at Emerson and I loved calling them by their first name. And they called me and I loved, oh my God, Dr. Bill Sharp. And I loved Vinny Murphy, my acting teacher. And he's still my mentor to this day. He could never really get rid of me, ever. I get emails from Vinny, I got email from Vinny last week, and he's the one who inspired me to write this screenplay that I have written that hopefully will be made into a movie. But I give him my what I've written my script and he goes through it. But yeah, we met at Emerson. And Dr. Sharp, who was chairman of the theater department, oh my God, he allowed me to grow and to play Hamlet in class and most women don't want to do that.And I was like, "Oh, you kidding me? I'm Hamlet. Let me be Hamlet." And he let me do that. And he also allowed me to play Feste in Twelfth Night. And then I played Caesonia in Caligula. I was fortunate enough to do leading roles in two main stage productions while I was there at Emerson. But I also took this book making class and I took writing, which allowed me to know that I was a solid writer, which allowed me to know how to make my book. When time came for me to do my book, I knew what to do. Emerson prepared me for all of those things.

Georgette:
It's nothing like the support of teachers, professors, guidance counselors, that just really... Because the through line that I hear with a lot of the other interviews I've done, a lot of teachers were the reasons why people continue to keep going, right?

Donzaleigh:
Oh yeah, you have to stay the course. But it's great for the teachers to believe in you. But more importantly, you have got to believe in yourself.

Georgette:
Yes.

Donzaleigh:
My dad used to say, "You have to decide. Are you going to be your own best friend or are you going to be your own worst enemy?" He said, "I suggest you become your best friend." And when you become your best friend, what that means is you are not going to be hanging out at those parties and doing dumb stuff and things that are going to hurt you because you're trying to live. You're trying to do the best that you can do and be the best that you can be.

Georgette:
There are moments that you go in and out of your lows and highs, and what is it that Donzaleigh does to keep the momentum going when you're not always feeling inspired, when you're not always feeling strong? What do you do to keep the fire lit on your path of acting?

Donzaleigh:
I go and deal with these young children who are hanging on by a thread. Or I go and I talk at the Sunrise Assisted Living Facility, these senior citizens who are just trying to cling to their memory and their children have put them away in a home. And so if I didn't have to work, to shoot this week, I would be with them tomorrow. And I think it's important.

They need me. I come and I give them intellectual stimulation and we talk about the world, we talk about politics. And when I'm finished, I feel so great because I've given them everything that I can and I hug them and I talk to them and I listen to them and it's just a thing that I do and I love it. And then the kids, Oh my God, they-

Georgette:
Kids are something else, yeah.

Donzaleigh:
Mm-hmm. Yeah, and they need it. They need people to believe in them. And I find that the more I give, the more I get. And it's really what they do for me. I feel so enriched by what they say, how they think, how feel, how I help them. And they help me. And so they take me from my low if I miss. So there've been several times where I've been in the one, two, three position and I've had several auditions for a role. And it goes to a woman with a bigger name and it's like, "Oh my God, oh my God."

Georgette:
You're right there.

Donzaleigh:
And then it's like, "Wait a second." I give myself a half a day of a pity party and then I go out that door and then I go to deal with my foundation where we serve these kids or I'm going to deal with the senior citizens.

Georgette:
Something that connects you or pulls you back.

Donzaleigh:
Right. And something political. Well, something that's noble and of a higher purpose than my ego. And it lifts me up. And so I'm not a drinker, and I'm not a smoker. I never really have been and I never will be. And it's okay. I love tea, but if I can give back, oh my God, the endorphins that go off inside of me and how it makes me feel.

Georgette:
If you had to switch careers, what would you be doing?

Donzaleigh:
I would be working in the medical industry. I don't think I have the bandwidth to be a doctor. My closest friends are doctors and, oh my God, one is a trauma surgeon. And when you're in an automobile accident or something like that, you go into her trauma bay and she cuts you open, does whatever she can to save your life. I couldn't do what Maxine does.

Georgette:
[inaudible 00:19:55].

Donzaleigh:
I can't. But I could be a nurse. I'm a really great caregiver. I'm a natural caregiver. And I'm just naturally into being able to heal people and make them feel better and make them smile. And there's so many people that don't understand what happens in the medical industry. We think we know. We don't know. These people are trained, they have gone to school, they have degrees in it, they know and they're in the business of trying to save lives. And the pressure that's on them it's just incredible.

Georgette:
[inaudible 00:20:38].

Donzaleigh:
Absolutely. Yeah, that-

Georgette:
Getting a glimpse of that when you were younger with your father, just that could be that entry point of view just-

Donzaleigh:
Yeah, it was. And then my friend-

Georgette:
Being of service to others, yeah [inaudible 00:20:52].

Donzaleigh:
And my friends, yeah.

Georgette:
Yeah. No matter what you do now, your experience at Emerson has influenced who you are today. Every institution leaves its fingerprint on us, whether we use it, acknowledge it or not. What mark did Emerson leave on you?

Donzaleigh:
Oh my God.

The thing I love about Emerson versus the other schools is Emerson literally prepares you for your profession. You walk out that door and you know exactly what to do in order to succeed in the game. Whereas if you go to other schools, you're not going to get that. Emerson prepared me to become a professional. Before I graduated from Emerson College, I had my Screen Actor's Guild card. Soon after I graduated I got my Equity card and I started working right away.

And then when it didn't work for me and people weren't hiring me because of the color of my skin... Because I tried to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art after Emerson. Went all the way to London and everything because I wanted to be a Shakespearean actress. And they told me that they loved me, they kept me all day long. They let the students come and go and they said, "Listen, when I met with Hugh Cruttwell," who ran the school, he says, "We already have our one black student for the year. You can come next year, but not this year." And I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" And I was so devastated and I thought, "This is prejudice, this is racism."
But Emerson had prepared me to pick myself up by my bootstraps and just keep moving. And so then I went and worked behind the camera. I spent seven years behind the camera. I started in the production office and then I was in wardrobe. I was Ruth Gordon's dresser. Ruth Gordon was the star of Harold and Maude and she and her husband, Garson Kanin, had written all of those movies that Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had done. And Garson Kanin would bring Ruth Gordon to work and he would say to me, "Don't be so nice to her." She wanted me to be there with her, literally 24/7, but she taught me my craft. But Emerson prepared me to know how to move from in front of the camera to behind the camera.
Also, Emerson is where I met all of my greatest friends. Emerson is where I met my first husband. My Emerson friends are still my friends to this day. So-

Georgette:
Are they actors along with you as well? Or some of them are in the field, some of them are not? Are they mixed and mingle in different creative field?

Donzaleigh:
They're different. Some of them are, some of them aren't. But I'm really proud. Vinny, my Emerson teacher, he said that window of time when we were there at Emerson, those students came out and became so incredibly successful. And there was a synergy that was happening at Emerson at the time. And I knew that I wanted to be an actress, but I loved that I also got a job.

I worked in every library. That was my thing, libraries. I loved Emerson's library, that little bitty library. So we had the wall. So we were on Beacon Street and then I went to work at Bonwit Teller for the four years that I was there, which was a store at the corner of Boylston and Newbury Street. And it was great. And I learned how to dress myself and my Emerson friends would look at me like, "What's happening with you?" I'm like, "I'm trying. I'm trying, you know?" "You were going to be a movie star. You got to look a certain way." The creative energy was...

Georgette:
Wouldn't change it.

Donzaleigh:
Uh-huh. And we were supportive. We were like a little flick of friends and we were very supportive of each other. And we were diverse. And-

Georgette:
And you went there for your bachelor's, right? That was your undergraduate [inaudible 00:24:54].

Donzaleigh:
Oh yeah. I did that. And I loved Emerson so much that, when I graduated, I didn't leave Boston because George, my first husband, who was still a student there who was then had become my boyfriend, he had to graduate. And so I had to hang out. And I had already done a play and gotten my equity card and I'd gotten an agent at an agency called ICM in New York City. And I was like, "Listen," they're like, "We're going to train you, you're going to start doing television shows." I'm like, "I'm a theater actress. I'm from Emerson. I do theater." And I was so full of myself. I had no idea how the world hadn't opened for me.

Georgette:
Right. Yeah.

Donzaleigh:
The thing I can say to the Emerson students; listen, when the opportunity comes, you have to seize it because it may not come again. And so when I get to this point in my life, I look back at all the things that I did wrong. I've made some big mistakes. Do I have some regrets? Yes. All I can say is when the opportunity is there, and it's a noble one and it's a great one, seize that opportunity. I stayed in Emerson and hung around and then I went to classes. I was no longer a student, but I'd go sit in classes...

Georgette:
Oh wow.

Donzaleigh:
... With George. Yeah. Oh yeah. Because there's so much more to learn. I thought there was so much more to learn that I wasn't ready. I wasn't emotionally mature and ready. I didn't want to grow up just yet.

Georgette:
Of course.

Donzaleigh:
And then finally when George graduated, I was like, "Oh God, I guess we have to grow up." He's like, "Yeah, we have to grow up now."

Georgette:
Yeah, college does that to you very quickly. You're like, "Oh, I can't wait to get out of college." And you're just like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Can I just get a few more years?"

Donzaleigh:
That's right.

Georgette:
Just a few more years.

Donzaleigh:
And Emerson was like summer camp in the winter. I mean it was so much fun. That's what it was. I love learning. I loved all my teachers. These teachers that care about you, that help to shape you. I'm a product of Emerson. And Emerson wasn't the only college that I was accepted to.

Georgette:
But you chose Emerson because there was something?

Donzaleigh:
Well no, I chose Emerson because it was small and it was intimate and I wanted an intimate environment.

Georgette:
That makes sense.

Donzaleigh:
I had gone over there to BU on that campus. And I was like, "I can't do this." My father's like, "What do you mean? Martin went to BU." Martin Luther King, he went to Boston University, "You can go to Boston University, you've been accepted." I'm like, "I can't do this. I can't do this. It's too big. They will only know me by my social security number. I want somebody to know me by my name. To love me and to nurture me and to teach me." And that's why I chose Emerson.

Georgette:
And they knew you by your name and you got what you wanted, Donzaleigh. You got what you want.

Donzaleigh:
I did.

Georgette:
So my very last question to you, because this is Making it Big, what does it mean for you to make it and how will Donzaleigh know when she gets there?

Donzaleigh:
Oh, I've been there already. When you're walking through the airport and you're walking, and people know you and call out your name, that's happened a lot. Especially when I was doing my TV series and when I was a leading lady of a few movies. Or when Ted Turner invited me as one of only two actors to the ceremony when he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And it was just incredible. I was there with his family and it meant a great deal to me that Ted had personally invited me. And then the lady coming over me who's from the star thing and letting me know, "Well your star will be waiting for you." And I'm like, "Oh really? Okay."

But I think it's not about those material things. It's really about who you are inside. And when I was doing Colored Girls and touring the Southeast right out of Emerson, I thought I had made it. I knew that I'd made it in a great way just because I was able to do what I wanted to do. I don't think success is measured by the money that you have. Because fame never means fortune. Martin Luther King was incredibly famous, but he by no means was he a rich man. And by no means was my father a rich man. But they achieved a level of fame and notoriety in the world. Just being able to do what I want to do lets me know that I'm successful, in the game...

Georgette:
It sounds like being affirmed in your work is definitely something that really means a lot to you because you have been blazing this trail for yourself.

Donzaleigh:
A long time. A long time. And no, I don't have an Academy Award.

Georgette:
Yet.

Donzaleigh:
Yet. But I've written a movie. I'm working on another documentary and who knows? You never know. There was this guy named Abe Vigoda and when he finally won his award, his Emmy, what was he? Close to 80 years of age. So you never know.

Georgette:
It sounds like the story is still being written, on what making it means to you, multiple times over.

Donzaleigh:
I think so, yeah. And I just want to be old and ancient and still doing my craft. I want to be an 80 some year old woman, or 90 something year old woman like Cicely Tyson or Henry Fonda or Ruth Gordon, whom I worked with until just before she died. Being a senior citizen. Doing your craft.

Georgette:
Doing your craft.

Donzaleigh:
Yes. Yes.

Georgette:
I love that. Donzaleigh, thank you so much for being here with me today.

Donzaleigh:
Oh my.

Georgette:
I'm sure your story will inspire, especially with you being at the intersection of activism and the arts, right? And so I wish you well with everything and cannot wait to see what you do next.

Donzaleigh:
Oh wow. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much, Georgette. It's my honor.

Georgette:
Making it Big in 30 minutes is sponsored by the Emerson College Office of Alumni Engagement and supported by the Alumni Board of Directors. Stay in touch with Emerson community. Join us over at Emerge, a digital platform where Emersonians go to connect. Go to emerge.emerson.edu for more.