Going off-script

Isiah Whitlock Jr. talks about acting to theater students Sept. 29 in the SMSU Black Box Theatre

Photo by Cindy Votruba Southwest Minnesota State University students Morgan Benson, left, and Paul Ragan work on a scene with SMSU alum and actor Isiah Whitlock Jr. Whitlock was on campus last weekend and gave a couple of workshops on acting in the Black Box Theatre.


It’s not often you get a chance to work one-on-one with someone at the top of their career, but Southwest Minnesota State University junior Sariah Cheadle recently got a few acting tips from Isiah Whitlock Jr.

Whitlock gave a presentation on what it takes to succeed in acting and participated in an actor’s workshop called “Acting for the Camera.” Cheadle got a chance to do some improvisational acting with him along with other theater students.

Whitlock, who graduated from Southwest State in 1976 and now lives in New York, took time out of his busy schedule to give back to his alma mater last weekend during Homecoming activities.

Cheadle and the other SMSU theater students worked from a script from the TV show, “The Mist,” which Whitlock appears in as Gus Bradley.

Cheadle, who is from Fulda and formerly of Minneota, is an English major with a theater minor.

“Working with Isiah was a great experience,” she said. “Although we have very different experience levels, he helped me feel very at ease and able to practice the things he was teaching us. It’s encouraging to have that connection at this stage in my career because it gives you an insight, small though it may be, of what working on that level will actually be like.”

In addition to “The Mist” Whitlock is also known for appearing on “The Wire” from 2002 to 2008 as corrupt state senator Clay Davis. He can be seen as Raleigh Marks in season one on the Donald Glover dramedy, “Atlanta.”

Whitlock gave a presentation to mostly SMSU students. He said he’s been acting for “30-odd years — before you guys were born.”

Jenna Miller, a senior theater major from Marshall, attended the presentation and said that it was “encouraging that someone graduating college from a small town, someone from the same school can be successful.”

Theater professor emeritus Dr. Bill Hezlep said Whitlock had the “it” factor back when he was a student appearing in the Eugene O’Neill play “Emperor Jones” in the Black Box Theatre in the mid-1970s.

“I told you that of everybody here at the time you have the best chance,” Hezlep said to Whitlock. “You had the magic. Some people have talent and you have ones with talent and charisma, a magnetism. Some people on stage, they light it up.”

Whitlock said preparation and determination are important to starting and maintaining a career in acting, a point taken in by Cheadle.

“The biggest thing I learned from him, is to do all I can to be prepared for whatever opportunities come my way and to be willing to put the work and time into developing my craft,” she said.

Whitlock also said observational skills were important. He used his experience at Southwest State for an acting role. He played a typical Midwesterner in the movie, “Cedar Rapids.” He used a Minnesota dialect for the role.

“You have to be a sponge,” he said. “You have to soak everything in.”

Theater professor Mike Lenz, in introducing Whitlock, said he “is one of our favorite alumni of the theater program. He has kept in contact throughout the years and when any theater students have been in New York has made himself available.”