On Nov. 3, California State University, Dominguez Hills welcomed actress/comedienne and theatre arts alumna Niecy Nash back to campus, where she spoke to students, faculty and the community at the Loker Student Union. Until last August, she has been the original host and producer of the Style Network’s number one-rated program, “Clean House.” Nash is also well-known for her role as Officer Raineesha Williams in Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!,” which aired from 2003 to 2009. She is currently a celebrity host on CBS Entertainment’s “The Insider,” for which she won a Daytime Emmy Award last summer.
Nash addressed her audience at CSU Dominguez Hills with the story of her journey to a successful acting career. With her trademark no-nonsense humor, she described her reaction as a five-year-old to seeing entertainer Lola Falana on television.
“I said, ‘My God, who is that?,’” recalled Nash. “My grandmother said, ‘Baby, that’s Lola Falana.’ I started to hyperventilate right there. I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to be! Glamorous! Black! On TV! Gimme that!’’”
Nash recounted the struggles that propelled her to stardom, including proving herself in acting classes as a teenager, where she aspired to be “the next Cicely Tyson.” A natural entertainer, she soon found most people were drawn to her gift for comedy.
“Plan A was to be an actor,” Nash said. “Plan B was to make Plan A work. The three words I adopted along the journey were ‘no matter what.’”
While in her early 20s, she witnessed her mother being shot and wounded by a former boyfriend. In addition, Nash’s only brother Michael, was killed in a high school shooting, which sent her mother into a deep depression. Nash discovered comedy helped to ease some of their shared grief.
“She said, ‘I’m getting in the bed and I’m not getting back up,’” said Nash. “At that young age, I didn’t know what to do. But I knew that I was funny. I knew I could make my mama laugh. So I went to her house everyday: I’m standing at the front of her bed, I’m telling her jokes, stories, I’m tap dancing … whatever else I could come up with.
“My mother goes from lying down in the bed to sitting up in the bed. One day I went to my mother’s house and she’s not in the bed,” said Nash.
Nash found her mother in the living room after she had invited the neigbors over, and insisted that her daughter perform for them right there and then. “[My mama said,] ‘I went across the street and got the neighbors, I told them you were funny – you all are gonna love this!,’” recalled Nash.
“It finally dawned on me: comedy is a gift,” said Nash. “Not that it completely healed my mother but I do believe it served as a salve when it came to piecing her together. So I said to myself, ‘Don’t be a selfish heifer – there are more people out there suffering! Go out there and spread it around!’”
Nash went on to tell students about the trials and tribulations of landing her first role with Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Barrymore in the 1995 film, “Boys on the Side,” going on auditions with her three young children, and her time as a student at CSU Dominguez Hills.
“I remember doing ‘The Colored Museum,’ ‘Fences,’” Nash reminisced. “There was one play where I was this pregnant. I appreciate this department because they asked, ‘You’re not going to have that baby before opening night, are you?’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Come on.’”
Along with the inclusivity of the theatre department at CSU Dominguez Hills, Nash remembered the classical stage training she received from faculty, including lecturer Charles Walker.
“I did not know how much I would love [live theatre] and this was the one place that gave me the chance to be… Cicely Tyson,” she said. “I got to flex my dramatic muscle here so I was always grateful for having this foundation. You have to know how to perform in front of a live audience. It was very rich and it was very real.”
Nash joked about giving trade secrets to the theatre arts majors present, and said that the most important thing she has learned is that “They call this show business for a reason. It’s not ‘show friend,’ it’s not ‘show you’re alright’ – it’s not even ‘sho ‘nuff.’
“I would say get the business of it real quick,” she cautioned. “It’s more than just them giving you a script and a role. It really is the business of creating your career, understanding the power of ‘no,’ understanding a good deal versus a bad deal.”
Students from other disciplines also looked forward to hearing from one of their favorite stars that evening. Brenda Valiente, a senior majoring in negotiation, conflict resolution, and peace building, said she could identify with where Nash came from and what it took for her to become an accomplished professional.
“She’s had a lot of success and she knows what it’s like to come from the background that most of the students here at Dominguez [Hills] are coming from, and how to succeed, she said.”
Damien Sanchez, a sophomore majoring in art and design, said that he enjoyed Nash’s work on “Reno 911!”.
“I’m also looking forward to being an actor,” he said. “This is a learning experience where she can teach us the secrets she has.”
Nash closed her talk by telling the aspiring actors and their fellow students from across the university to trust their instincts about their dreams.
“When you go somewhere that you feel is a part of your destiny, you do have to go with the spirit of bold,” she said. “Not arrogant, but you have to believe there is something there for you to lay hold of. Hold on to the thing that you feel has been stamped on the canvas of your imagination. Hold on to it and walk it out—no matter what.”
Nash has numerous feature films to her credit, including “Cookie’s Fortune,” “The Bachelor,” “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” and “Reno 911!: Miami.” She has also lent her voice to countless animated features and television shows including “Horton Hears a Who!,” “American Dad,” and “The Boondocks.” Her television credits, which most recently featured a widely-viewed stint on “Dancing with the Stars,” include roles on “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Monk,” “ER,” and “NYPD Blue.”
Nash is currently developing television and film projects through her own production company, Chocolate Chick, Inc. She is also actively working on causes such as the prevention and awareness of HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, school violence, and domestic abuse. Nash is the spokesperson for M.A.V.I.S. (Mothers Against Violence In Schools), an organization established by her mother after losing her son.
Latoya Getter, a senior majoring in theatre arts, said that hearing about Nash’s experiences will help students understand “how to make better decisions once we get into the entertainment business.”
Getter also appreciated Nash’s perspectives on the industry as a woman and a woman of color, who is a role model for all students—and particularly women of color—at CSU Dominguez Hills.
“It’s not all the time that you see African American women in the entertainment industry,” said Getter. “She’s giving us a broader perspective not only on how to be successful but also the issues of being a woman and African American woman. It’s something I’m always willing… to gain more insight on. Being at Dominguez Hills is the best way to start… everything.”
For more information on theatre arts at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.