For nearly a decade, Dr. Tommie Tonea Stewart has served as dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at a tenured professor at Alabama State University (ASU). In her previous capacity, she served as chair of ASU’s Theatre Arts Department for 20 years.
On June 1, 2019, Dr. Stewart will officially retire from ASU, having a legacy of over 48 years of a career in higher education dedicated to the enlightenment, empowerment and enrichment of young people who have graduated with an education and a vision for quality of life both professionally and personally.
A Greenwood, Miss. native, Dr. Stewart received her B.S. Degree in Speech and Theatre from Jackson State University and her M.A. in Theatre Arts from the University of California at Santa Barbara. In 1989, she completed her Ph.D. in Theatre Arts from Florida State University, becoming the first Theatre McKnight Doctoral Fellow and the first African-American female to receive a doctorate from the FSU School of Theatre Arts.
An accomplished professional actress with many film and television roles to her credit, Dr. Stewart is perhaps best known for her roles in the film “A Time to Kill,” “Mississippi Damned,” and on the long running television series “In the Heat of the Night.” Recently, she was featured in the hit film, ‘Girls Trip’ and in the Netflix original movie ‘Come Sunday’.
As dean, Dr. Stewart was responsible for the Visual Arts, Theater and Music departments. Her legacy began as chair of the Theatre Arts program, which became one of the most recognizable programs in the country for its innovative programs, and where a large number of graduates, approximately 75% from the theater department, go on to receive full scholarships. Thus they attended major graduate universities such as Brown, Brandies, Rutgers, Yale, UCLA, University of Louisville, Washington State, and LSU, to name a few.
Two of Dr. Stewart’s crowning achievements while at ASU has been with her summer arts youth camps, held every summer for 28 years, where youth come from all over the country to participate in intensive arts, music and dance training from Dr. Stewart, ASU staff, along with invited professional guest artists: http://www.toneastewartcamps.com/
And, Dr. Stewart’s Theater of Being Summit, inaugurated in 2018 that recognizes the ancestry of the arts in the African American community and the artistry of Stewart’s mentors, the late Bea Richards and Frank Silvera: www.myppk.com/get/theaterofbeing/
"Dr. Stewart is irreplaceable. I have had the privilege of knowing and working with her for nearly 30 years and watched as she impacted many lives. Dr. Stewart will be missed, but I am excited for her as she begins this next chapter of her life." – Lois Jackson, Administrative Secretary ~ ASU College of Visual and Performing Arts
There will be a retirement dinner honoring Dr. Stewart in May, with a planned celebration for her in the fall of 2019 (details forthcoming).
“I believe Dr. Stewart is one of the most recognized and beloved personalities in the state of Alabama. She inspires young and old alike to do and be more with our God-given gifts. This certainly is true for what she has done for me”.
— Dr. Ronald McDowell, Visual Arts Instructor, Tuskegee University
Q&A with Dr. Tonea Stewart
RW) Dr. Stewart ~ you are retiring from your post as Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Alabama State University (ASU) this Spring on June 1 after a 48-year career as an educator. This is a life-changing event. How are you feeling and has the significance of what this retirement means for your life sunk in yet?
TS) Oh yes, it is very real to me. "To everything there is a season", you know that it is your season when the thought hits you, "why didn't you retire five years ago?" Then you start a conversation with yourself debating about what more you want to achieve on the job. Suddenly, you realize that time is not on your side so stop, drop the ideas into the minds of others and roll on out of the way. There are so many great minds at a university, leaders are constantly being born. Focus, at this time on yourself and what you as an individual can do. That is a true comfort; I am ready to enjoy my family, my children and my grandchildren. They are all awesome and they have shared me with others all of their lives. I love my family more than words can express...while I can, it is my desire to help them to reach their goals as they have allowed me to reach my goals.
RW) When you reflect back on your career as a teacher, a tenured professor, and then as dean, what has been the most gratifying aspect of it for you?
TS) The beauty of being able to draw the talents out and validate that talent for so many students. To have continued the legacy of the Dunbar Dramatic Guild at Jackson State University to the satisfaction of my Professor, Dr. E.J. Fisher. To have created a community theatre in Jackson, Miss. called The Repertory Theatre of Miss., which showcased the talents of former students and talented community members for nearly ten years. This company remained intact even after I moved away; my sister Beverly and its dedicated members maintained our cause as well as the MLK Celebration. The MLK Celebration was organized as the he first Statewide MLK Celebration in Miss. it had nearly 400 voices in the choir and The Miss. Mass Choir grew out of that 1987 MLK Celebration. To Create a Theatre Arts Dept. at Alabama State University and then see it as well as all three departments in the college maintain and gain National accreditation.
To visit Broadway, see a movie, or TV show then suddenly one of my students appear. It has really been fun trying to capture the count of how many of my students have now received the MFA degree, as well as other graduate degrees i.e. law, PhD, EdD, MA. and even BFA. The blessing is that while I was busy guiding others, my own children are great achievers MA in Accounting, MA in Speech Pathology and A Double Degree in Theatre and Film.
RW) What were some of your biggest challenges as an educator at Alabama State University over the years?
TS) At ASU the biggest challenge was timing. Because we always double cast the students so that all of them would get the training, this required more time and often we had extremely long nights. The training that I brought to ASU was based on Frank Silvera's philosophy and technique called "Being". It is an intimate process that requires focus on the now. Much like existentialism.
RW) What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing our youth today after they receive their degrees and head into the marketplace?
TS) The biggest hurdle for any artist, regardless of age, is "to believe in yourself".
RW) I have noted that among your many accomplishments and programs that you have initiated is the Tonea Stewart Performing Arts Camps that you have been conducting every summer now for nearly 30 years. Tell us about the camps and who can attend, and what was the motivation?
TS) The Tonea Stewart Performing Arts Camps started long before ASU. It was designed to reach our youth from 6 to 18 years of age. It was named The Tonea Stewart Camp at ASU but started in Dallas Texas at The Black Academy of Arts and Letters with my First graduate Mr. Curtis King. My sister Beverly and I worked with Curtis for many years, then on to San Diego, and then on to Jackson State we started The Eye Of The Tiger Camp and The Art Cart Players. After moving to Montgomery together we started TAPS (Theatre Artist Performing Arts Camp}, 3T (Teaching Through Theatre); TTI (Technical Theatre Initiative; Camp Gifted (Giving Individuals to Express Diversity) for the physically challenged and ARPAC (Adult Repertory Performing Arts Camp). These camps exposed participants to campus life, the performing arts, and the significance of their Being. It has lasted 27 years. I hope that summer camps of this magnitude will prevail.
RW) You also started a summit that premiered in 2018 called, Theater of Being Summit. Tell us about your motivation with the summit, and will this be an annual event?
TS) The American Theatre of Being Summit was designed to recall graduates and begin the process of certifying them as practitioners of Being. It is a pass the torch activity to encourage bi annually this process so they will set up shop and teach the being technique to future generations.
RW) What's the next chapter for you professionally? You have had a great career as a professional actress; will you focus more on acting now? Are there any plans to write a book about your stellar career?
TS) Yes all of the above, write a book on Being, pursue acting opportunities, and spend as much time enjoying and training my grandchildren to be proficient in their endeavors.
RW) If there is one person in history you would like to portray in a movie, who would that person be, and why?
TS) I care not to limit myself, but I admire so many of our legends, my list would be endless. There is Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hammer, Juanita Moore, Claudia McNeil, Beah Richards, Maya Angelou, Mary McLeod Bethune, Clara Luper, Margaret Walker, so many I love.
RW) I know that there will be a celebration dinner for you in May, and then another celebration in the Fall. Many accolades and praises coming your way. One of your colleagues, Dr. Ronald McDowell at Tuskegee told me that you are one of Alabama's most loved personalities for what you have done for our youth and for helping to make ASU a shining example of what an educational institution can be in how it services our young people and our communities. How do you want your legacy to be remembered at ASU?
TS) Whatever the ASU family feels is best. I have cherished memories. Ronald McDowell is a legendary genius with his Art. I am humbled by his words.
The time spent at ASU, 28 years on that campus allowed me to do God's will. I believe the saying "Only what you do for Christ will last". All that I was able to achieve was done as Gods vessel. Glory be to his name! The 20 years at Jackson State University, my Alma Mater, was most eventful. I literally grew up there, crowned as Miss JSU, knighted by Muhammed Ali at my coronation, and met my husband Allen and our children were born in Jackson.
A Retrospective In Photos
Pam Morris from Atlanta Georgia on May 20, 2019:
Hello Rob, thank you for taking the time to know how to pick and choose which great storyline to post on your hub. You keep me posted on the great news from people who worthy to read about, people doing much great thing that needs to be shared with the world. I agree Dr, Steward will be irreplaceable as she has done such a great job. I appreciate that you take the time to share Q& A that many as well as myself enjoy reading. Thanks again for doing such a wonderful job, sometimes I don't get to read about all the good news online. It's appreciated that you share, keeps it coming!