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No More 'Dodging Bullets' for Actress Suzzanne Douglas

FAST TRACK: Up and Comers in Arts and Entertainment; One in a Series

May 10, 1994|N. F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some might call it a schizophrenic childhood.

Suzzanne Douglas--currently on both movie and television screens--says she spent her early years "dodging bullets and then running home and learning about the arts" from her mother, a single parent.

Douglas believes her unusual upbringing in Chicago's South Side has added dimension to her work. She plays a family woman married to an ex-Black Panther in the movie "The Inkwell," and in the CBS telefilm "Search for Grace," she plays the calming best friend of a woman who has a past-life experience. This fall, moviegoers can see her in "Jason's Lyric" as the wife of a troubled Vietnam veteran, played by Forest Whitaker.

"I grew up with two worlds," recalls Douglas, 36. "The one outside, with the guns and rough life, and the one in my home, where my mother was constantly reading and talking about the arts."

Her ability to effectively use skewed past emotions for her career hasn't gone unnoticed by those who've worked with her.

"She's a very strong performer who's extremely cheerful," says Sam Pillsbury, director of "Search for Grace." "She's not tortured in any way--and that's not to minimize her. She's like a bomb waiting to go off with an explosion of energy, and when you are moving so fast, as a director, it's one more thing you don't have to worry about. You can count on her strong, intelligent and witty performance."

Growing up in Chicago's projects, it was a family choir-- consisting of many of Douglas' 125 first cousins--that "saved me from becoming a statistic," the actress says. "We had a great sense of family. There was a continuing emphasis on education, so we read together, performed plays together and always had a thirst for learning."

But Douglas had trouble relating to her peers: "They didn't think I was black enough," which confounded her, since, she adds, "I grew up in an all-black neighborhood. I only knew white people from the movie screen." Ironically, the movie that changed the life of the then 9-year-old was 1965's "The Sound of Music."

"I walked out of there thinking I was Julie Andrews," she says. "I used to walk around singing songs from the movie. That's probably why I got beaten up so much. I spoke with this mah-vah-lous elocution. It was such an escape for me. But I was very aware of who I was."

What she didn't understand, she says emphatically, was that "during Reconstruction, after slavery, you couldn't keep blacks from their thirst for learning. It's very indicative of blacks, that spirit of wanting to learn and know more. I was so perplexed by them not thinking I wasn't black enough. Were they saying that black people who wanted an education and spoke well weren't black enough?"

By high school, Douglas realized how drawn she was to acting, singing and dancing, despite the derision of her peers. After being spit on during a production of "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown," she was even more determined to become a successful actress.

She performed in musical revues, studied at the Illinois University Stage Institute (sharing the stage with John Malkovich, Judith Ivey, Robert Townsend and Laurie Metcalf) and racked up the Broadway credits: "Threepenny Opera" (co-starring Sting), "The Tap Dance Kid" and "Into the Woods."

Her first movie role--in 1989's "Tap," tapping and acting opposite Gregory Hines--earned her that year's NAACP Image Award for best supporting actress.

Married to Dr. Roy Jonathan Cobb for "five glorious years," Douglas is ready to start a family and settle into both their New Jersey home and the one they're building on Martha's Vineyard. "We put ourselves as a priority in each other lives," she says. "That's our life. It's not about whether I get another job."

Yet acting remains important to her. She's set to work on an as-yet-unnamed feature film with her "Inkwell" co-star, Joe Morton, in June.

Douglas' inspirations include her mother--who had only a high-school education and turned a bank temp-job into a vice presidency--and her mother-in-law, Jewell Plummer Cobb, former Cal State Fullerton president, who was the first African American woman university president. If they persisted for their successes, she says, so can she.

"I have a good life now," she sums up simply. "You draw from life, go into your own life to help create a character. I've had a very full life and I can't wait to see what God has in store for me in the future."

* "Search for Grace" airs next Tuesday from 9-11 p.m. on CBS (Channels 2 and 8). "The Inkwell" is now playing in theaters.

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