Something in the water? Black actresses with Maryland ties flourish in television and film

Published 3/8/2023 5:24 p.m. EST, Updated 3/9/2023 11:27 a.m. EST

Jada Pickett Smith, Moses Ingram, Isis King and Mo'Nique all hail from Baltimore.

Actress Moses Ingram vividly remembers working a number of odd jobs while attending college in Baltimore, including at an Amazon shipping facility and a local theater.

When auditioning, Ingram would take the 5 a.m. Megabus to New York City and get there early enough to find places to hang out for a couple hours beforehand.

Ingram said these experiences, and years being raised in Baltimore, where she attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, helped mold her into the Emmy-nominated actress she is today.

“I think in large part it has to do with the city itself,” she said. “It’s the day-to-day of just being here. I remember going to school you pass a cast of characters. There are such vivid, vibrant people to study.”

Ingram, who was nominated for the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” and appears in the Disney+ series “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” said the toughness forced upon her by the city works as a weapon to help sharpen her acting.

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. You have to be hard to a certain extent,” she said. “I remember being a little person walking myself to school and my mother teaching me to not smile so I would not attract the wrong attention. It meant being aware of my surroundings. All those things make you a better artist. You become a better observer.”

Moses Ingram attends the studio showcase panel at Star Wars Celebration for “Obi-Wan Kenobi” in Anaheim, California on May 26, 2022. The new limited series, exclusively on Disney+, debuts May 27.

Ingram is part of a contingent of Black Maryland women dominating TV and film roles.

There are the likes of Jada Pinkett Smith, Wanda Sykes, and Academy Award winner Mo’Nique. And there’s the newer guard of talent from Ingram in the Star Wars universe to DeWanda Wise in “Jurassic World Dominion” and Nicole Ari Parker in “And Just Like That,” the revival of “Sex And The City.”

The area produces an inordinate number of Black actresses for many reasons, industry experts say. Baltimore, an overwhelmingly majority Black city rich with talent, has arts programs for young people and the famed Baltimore School for The Arts. There’s also a strong regional theater community for artists to cut their teeth before jumping to larger roles in bigger nearby markets. And there’s an overall grittiness that has given successful actresses a desire to succeed.

“There is something in the ethos and water of this area of the world that is producing and nurturing ferociously talented artists,” said Stephanie Ybarra, the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage since 2018, who recently announced she is leaving to join the Mellon Foundation as its program officer in arts and culture. “The talent is a couple generations deep.”

Ybarra vividly remembers the first time she spotted the wealth of talent early in the pandemic during a collaboration with ArtsCentric, a Black-led and all-Black theater company. There, she was introduced to actress Awa Sal Secka.

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“She blew the roof off the joint,” said Ybarra, who said the actress recently wrapped up a production of the Broadway-bound play “Goddess.” “The bench is deep here. The bench is very deep.”

Thea Washington, a Baltimore-based casting director who has worked on projects for Disney, HBO, Netflix and BBC, attributes the success of actresses with Baltimore ties to their ability to relate to so many people.

“That makes us really malleable. We’re able to walk into rooms and relate to all types of people,” she said. “I believe that because a lot of us are one foot into the suburban area — whether it is because who we are dating or a family member — we have an opportunity to dream.”

Washington singled out Jada Pinkett Smith and Mo’Nique as two trailblazing Black actresses who established a blueprint of success.

Pinkett Smith, Washington said, was a “very cute, sassy Baltimore girl” from the beginning of her career.

“Mo’Nique was not the petite, fair-skin girl. She looks like us. She shot to superstardom,” Washington said. “I believe that made it more tangible for us.”

Opportunities for success

In Baltimore, a city that is nearly 70% Black, colorblind and color-conscious casting of traditionally white productions has resulted in expanded opportunities for Black actresses.

Pat Moran, a multiple Emmy award-winning casting agent, said Baltimore has traditionally produced large numbers of Black actresses, for everything from leading roles to bit part scene-stealers.

“They dug deep. And you could see it in the work,” Moran said. “It wasn’t a case of mommy wanting me to do this. They want to do this. ”

Moran said that Black actresses from Baltimore have this “believability” — particularly from a young age — that sets them apart.

“Maybe they better understand the material. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s in the water. But somewhere, somebody is teaching kids the right thing,” she said.

Ybarra credits the strong community theaters in the region, as well as the theater schools and programs geared toward young people, as reasons why successful actors thrive here. She puts Baltimore on par with cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York as far as having the ability to mass produce talented actresses.

“Baltimore continues — in terms of theater — to rise. It gets a little clearer when you iris out beyond actors. It’s a larger ecology of arts and culture that is ripe with music, poetry, arts and dance. It creates really well-rounded artists, whether that be on camera or on stage,” she said.

But Ybarra and Moran worry opportunities may be drying up.

“A place like BCS can be an incredible, important stepping stone to elevate and amplify an actor’s talent,” Ybarra said. “In order to do that, the person sitting in my chair and directors need to realize that. We need more Black actors on our stages, period. But I still get blowback. The arts and entertainment leadership know how to nurture talent. It would be really great if our donors and audiences would get on board.”

Moran is concerned Maryland isn’t competitive enough in offering tax incentives to film studios, which has resulted in fewer productions coming to town and fewer opportunities for creatives to break into the industry.

“There is a pool here that is still to be developed,” she said. “It gave the younger ones the audition process. It worked. On the series ‘Homicide,’ the more talent you presented and gave an opportunity to, the more confidence the directors and producers had in you. It looked real because it was.”

Baltimore School for the Arts

Jada Pinkett Smith attends Apple Original Films' "Emancipation"  Los Angeles premiere at Regency Village Theatre on November 30, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Many attribute the success of Black actresses to the famed Baltimore School for the Arts, which has a bevy of alums such as Ingram and Pinkett Smith.

Ingram described the school as “really amazing” because it gives teenagers “a few hours of their day to immerse themselves in the arts.”

The star factor of the school, combined with the intensive study of the craft, creates success, according to Ingram.

She recalls hearing the names of famous alumni and thinking, “We went to the same high school.”

She added: “It was almost like a myth.”

Attending the Waldorf School of Baltimore, a private school in the northern part of the city, and Baltimore School for the Arts prepared Imani Robinson for roles on several HBO shows, including “The Wire,” “The Deuce” and “We Own This City.”

“I had a play every year,” she recalled. “I was immersed in the arts from the time I was very young.”

Robinson, who still acts, has expanded her career to owning a production company and writing.

She is currently shopping around a pilot for “3 Blind Mice,” which she wrote and produced, starring fellow “The Wire” actors Tristan Wilds and Jermaine Crawford.

“I want to create more content that dissects Black experiences that have not been shown yet,” said the Brooklyn-based Robinson, who also teaches children’s theater. “In media, there is a narrow view of Black culture. It is important to tell those stories that haven’t been touched upon yet.”

Close proximity to other cities

Being able to take a quick trip to New York City to audition was a major reason why Ingram said she was prepared for the bigger spotlight.

“It’s still expensive to get to New York,” she said. “But it’s nice not having to fly all the way to L.A. For teenagers in particular, someone has to get them there. It’s a matter of resources.”

Model Isis King attends the GLSEN 2018 Respect Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 21, 2018 in New York City.

Like Ingram, Isis King remembers going back and forth from Maryland to Philadelphia and New York City in her teens looking for artistic opportunities.

“It is convenient,” said King, a Prince George’s County native who made history as the first transgender contestant on “America’s Next Top Model.” She currently stars as a regular on “With Love,” a romantic comedy series on Amazon.

King also thinks the diversity of the region plays a part.

“We just have so much flavor there. I’m not surprised,” she said. “You have the hood, and you have Potomac, and you have everything in between.”

A toughness and authenticity

In an industry with limited available roles and inevitable rejection, being a Black actress at the elite level requires a certain level of toughness, according to industry insiders.

Actresses with ties to the Baltimore region possess a high level of grit and fortitude that allows them to better navigate through the adversity, they say.

Ybarra said that Black actresses in Baltimore develop this toughness as a result of racism and anti-Blackness, which results in them showing up to auditions in their “authentic, whole selves” and their abilities to care and advocate for themselves.

“It is still a very extracted industry,” she added.

Washington agrees.

“New York has the saying that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I don’t know what our saying would be, but there’s just something about a Baltimore girl. I believe that they are ambitious, they’re hungry, they want more, and they know they can get it. And they’re real.”

10 actresses with Maryland ties

DeWanda Wise attends the "Jurassic World: Ein neues Zeitalter" Photocall at Medienpark on May 30, 2022 in Cologne, Germany.

DeWanda Wise

The Columbia native will follow Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and the box office blockbuster “Jurassic World Dominion” with “Three Women,” a 10-part adaptation of Lisa Taddeo’s book, starring Shailene Woodley. STARZ announced it just picked up the series after the project was scrapped by Showtime. She is also set to appear in “Poolman,” a mystery comedy directed by actor Chris Pine that is currently in post-production.

Nicole Ari Parker attends The Fifteen Percent Pledge Benefit Gala at New York Public Library on April 02, 2022 in New York City.

Nicole Ari-Parker

Fresh off of the success of appearing on Peacock’s hit “The Best Man,” the Baltimore native will return to HBO’s “And Just Like That,” the revival based on “Sex and the City.”

Tiffany Boone attends Entertainment Weekly Celebrates Screen Actors Guild Award Nominees.

Tiffany Boone

The Baltimore School for the Arts alum, known for her work in “The Chi,” “Hunters,” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” is currently filming “The Big Cigar,” an Apple TV+ miniseries.

Tracie Thoms attends the Los Angeles Premiere of Focus Features' "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul." at Regal LA Live on August 22, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Tracie Thoms

The Baltimore School for the Arts alum has appeared in a number of projects from Broadway (“Rent”) to Hollywood (”The Devil Wears Prada”). She has appeared on shows such as “9-1-1,” “Blindspot,” and “Station 19.″

Rachel Hilson attends the "Rise" New York premiere at Landmark Theatre on March 7, 2018 in New York City.

Rachel Hilson

Hilson, another Baltimore School for the Arts alum, debuted with a recurring role on “The Good Wife.” Since then, she has appeared on “Love, Victor,” “This is Us,” and “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.”

Bresha Webb attends the world premiere of Netflix's "Day Shift" at Regal LA Live on August 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Bresha Webb

Webb, who also graduated from Baltimore School for the Arts, has had success in everything from comedies to medical dramas. She had recurring roles in both “ER” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” She currently stars on “Run the World,” a Starz comedy series.

Anna Deavere Smith attends The American Theatre Wing's 2019 Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on September 16, 2019 in New York City.

Anna Deavere Smith

The veteran actress and playwright was born and raised in Baltimore, and is best known for her roles on “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie.” She was nominated in 1993 for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and for two Tony Awards in 1994. In 1996, she received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Penny Johnson Jerald attends the 2022 ABC Disney Upfront at Basketball City - Pier 36 - South Street on May 17, 2022 in New York City.

Penny Johnson Jerald

The Julliard-trained Baltimore native has appeared in shows such as “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and “Castle.” She currently stars on the Fox/Hulu series “The Orville.”

Wanda Sykes attends the Los Angeles premiere for Hulu's "History of the World, Part II" at Hollywood Legion Theater on February 27, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

Wanda Sykes

The comedian and writer went to high school in Gambrills before attending Hampton University. She starred in “The New Adventures of Old Christine” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and “The Wanda Sykes Show.” An accomplished voice actress, she has starred in numerous animated projects. She was also co-host of the 94th Academy Awards.

Ego Nwodim attends "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" World Premiere at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on October 02, 2022 in New York City.

Ego Nwodim

The Baltimore native and University of Southern California grad has been a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” since 2018. She has appeared on shows such as “Law & Order True Crime,” “2 Broke Girls,” and “K.C. Undercover.”