Welcome to Wambui Stories - 70 Years and Beyond!
Sept. 7, 2021

How I Got To New York City

How I Got To New York City

My family and I, in the 1950s and 1960s, in Greensboro, North Carolina didn't travel a lot. When we did travel, it was usually within the state of North Carolina. Occasionally we would take the train to the state of South Carolina because that is where my father was born and we still had relatives there.  By the time I was in Junior High School, I already knew I wanted to be an Actress. I had also learned that it wasn't wise to tell anybody that I knew in Greensboro that I wanted to be an actress. In high school, I read about a new school in New York City where I could study acting and theater all day. I applied. I was accepted. We couldn't afford it. And, then - out of the blue - a bitter-sweet miracle happened. I found myself saying, "Ma, I'm going to New York City!   

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Transcript

I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1950. I didn't really travel far from the Carolinas when I was growing up. My mother was from Goldsboro, North Carolina. My father was from the area of Greenville, South Carolina. So I do remember traveling to goals for all to spend summers and some winter holidays with my grandparents who were

on my mother's side. And there were a few times where we traveled to South Carolina, to my father's people, as we used to say. But other than that, I never traveled anywhere, just hung around the Carolinas, basically hung around Greensboro.

By the time I entered high school, I had fallen in love with theater. And I knew that that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something, the theater. And I was thinking that what I wanted to do was be on a stage.

I wanted to be an actress. Well, we had come to that time in our lives where we're getting ready to go to the last year of high school. And people are asking, well, what do you want to do when you grow up?

What are you going to do when you graduate? And so I started off by saying, I want to be an actress. And I quickly learned that that was not the right answer. People didn't know how to process that.

A lot of people just tried to talk me out of it. I was told how impractical that was. And even my own parents would say, girl, you need to do something that you can fall back on. And I got it.

I understood. I mean, I realized that we didn't know anybody who made a living as an actress. We heard about people on TV and we read about people, but we didn't really know anybody who actually did it. And we all had heard those stories about the struggling artists and how you could be a very fine actress and

get one big break. And then after that, nothing. So I got it. But I still wanted to try it for myself. But what I learned to do was to not tell anyone that I wanted to be an actress.

I started telling people, I want to be a nurse. Yeah, I'm going to be a nurse. And when I would tell people I was going to be a nurse, I liked that. And they encouraged me. And they were happy and I was happy.

It was in the 11th grade that I read about the school up in New York City. Now, I knew that if I really was serious about being an actress, I needed to get to New York City. So I read about the school up there, which was part of New York University.

Aha. A university where I could take acting classes. Two birds with one stone. And I read about the school. It was a new school. It was a new part of New York University. And it was called the New York University School of the Arts.

And as I read about it, it talked about how the students there and I believe at that time it was in his first year when this article was written. And the students there take acting and voice and singing and dance and circus and just all kinds of performing and acting classes all day long.

Well, I wanted to go to that school, so I wrote them a letter and I said, I want to go to a school. They sent me back a packet of things to fill out an application. Basically, it was the New York University application with a component in there to fill out for their new school, the School of

the Arts. And so I was so happy to get this packet, and I started filling it out right away. I was just so diligent and just so precise about everything that I wrote, my essays, how I fill out the form.

So on the day when I finally had all of my work done, I was about to put it in an envelope, a large envelope, to send it all back to New York University. And I'm just checking over the list to make sure I included everything in my package.

And I get down to the bottom of the page where they had the things for you to check up. And I see at the bottom and small print it says. Please don't forget to include your 100 dollar nonrefundable application fee.

Oh, my God, one hundred dollars was a lot for our family. I mean, it wasn't that many years ago that my mother was making twenty five cents an hour cleaning people's houses. How was that going to ask for 100 dollars?

But there was nothing for me to do but ask because I couldn't sit in my packet without the nonrefundable one hundred dollars. So I went to my mother and I said, Mama, I really need one hundred dollars to send in my application.

And I didn't say School of the Arts. I said this in in my application to New York University. And my mother said, one hundred dollars. And she just looked at me and she walked away. And then I went to my father and I said, Dad, I need a hundred dollars to send in this application to New York

University. Again, I made sure to leave out School of the Arts. I said I need 100 dollars to send in my application to New York University. And my father said, a hundred dollars. And then I don't know what he said after he stopped clapping, because when he started laughing, I just walked away.

So for the next few weeks. After school, like clockwork, I would go to my mother and I would say, mama, I really need a hundred dollars and I'm going to get a job this summer and I'm going to make sure that before the summer is over, I will have paid you back the one hundred dollars.

But if there's any way that you could get one hundred dollars and let me have it so I can send in my application. So that went on day after day after day for more than a week. And then one day when I came home from school, before I could say anything, my mother came to me and she

said, here, here's a hundred dollars. And I thought, wow, my mother believes in me. And my mother said I borrowed it from the loan company downtown. I borrowed it because I want you to shut up. I am tired of hearing you ask me for a hundred dollars.

Like I got a hundred dollars. And now you've got your hundred dollars. Stop begging me for a hundred dollars. I want you to just shut up. Now that you've got your hundred dollars, I was like, whoa. I mean, I was hoping that when she gave me the hundred dollars, she would say, here's a hundred dollars that you

wanted, dear. It's because I believe in you. I support, you know, she was like, is your hundred. But never mind. I got a hundred dollars. And I told my mother that I would pay your back. And I put my package together.

I got a money order, put it in a package. And I sent my package up to New York University School of the Arts. And I waited. A few weeks later, I received a letter back from New York University School of the Arts saying that they were scheduling an audition for me in Washington, D.C.

I didn't really know anybody in Washington, D.C. and I'd only gone there once with the Whiting's when we took a bus trip to see the monuments. But the good news was that by now, my sister was a freshman at Howard University, and Howard University just happened to be in Washington, D.C.

So I was able to convince my mother about this audition, but really playing it up like I was really going to visit my sister. So my mother said that my sister needed to meet me at the bus when I got to D.C.

And that she was to escort me to the audition. And that is what we did. For the audition, we were to do two monologues, one that was classical and one a little more contemporary. Well, for my classical, I did Shakespeare.

Macbeth, that was a witch. And for my second piece, I did a scene from the play The Glass Menagerie. I did. Then I came back to Greensboro and I waited. A few weeks later, I did receive a letter from New York University School of the Arts.

I opened it very carefully. It was a thick kind of package. So that's good. Right. And I looked underneath and I did see the word, congratulations. I'm in, right? I'm in, I'm in. And I'm looking through all the papers and they're giving dates for when this is going to happen.

And we you should arrive. And what's going to happen here. And I get to one page and it says, and remember that you need to have your deposit in a deposit and by this date and then the rest of the semester.

Tuition would be do. On this day. Well. I looked at those figures. And even I at that time, I just had to say to myself, girl, you don't have to get yourself another dream. That school was so expensive.

My parents didn't make that much in a year what they were asking for a semester. I mean, even if I had gone to all my neighbors and said, neighbors on my block, would you just donate your yearly salary to me so that I could go to this school?

It still wouldn't be enough. So I was going to have to come up with another plan. Now, I had applied to some other schools, but at this point, I didn't even care whether or not I got into a theater school or not.

I just wanted to get into a school that was a way a school outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, because right now my goal was to get to New York City. And I felt like I couldn't get to New York City as long as I was living here with my parents.

I needed to be away in order to get away. If you understand what I mean. So I didn't care what school it was as long as it was outside of Greensboro. Now, I had applied at Howard, and guess what, I got accepted at Howard, the same school my sister was at in Washington, D.C., and they were offering

some grants and work study and different things that was going to make it affordable. So I decided I was going to join my sister in Washington, D.C. The day before I was to leave to go to Washington, D.C., I received a telegram from New York University School of the Arts.

The telegram said, Dear Miss Washington, stop. Due to the untimely death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the unrest on our campus. Stop. Moneys have been made available to bring more minorities into our program. Stop. Congratulations. You have been awarded a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. full grant to New York University School of the Arts.

And I said, Ma, I'm going to New York City!