How he came to acting might also have something to do with the unflappable and genuine presence he projects from the stage. Like many of the African-American performers who got their start with the now almost-legendary Dashiki company, Evans got all his training under fire. A friend convinced him to read for a part. He was cast and, from then on, there was no holding him back.
Typically, Evans -- who, on Monday, April 21, will receive the Big Easy Entertainment Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatre -- sums up his 30-odd years under the spotlights with a shrug: "It's generally been fun, and another way to learn more stuff."
Under the rubric of fun, he does not include an outdoor historical pageant in Jackson Square that was interrupted by a Southern Decadence parade, or a production in a Plaquemines Parish barroom that resulted in a brawl (perhaps because a late-arriving patron did not know the gun that had just been pulled was a prop in fictional scenario).
But memorable disasters have been the exception. And any local theater aficionado will have his own list of favorite Evans' roles. Two of my own are his dignified, faltering Willie Loman in Tommye Myrick's African-American version of Death of a Salesman, and the grandiloquent, homeless professor who carries his archives around as insulation under his shirt in Jomo Kenyatta Bean's Hobos. Then, of course, there was the put-upon chauffeur in Carl Walker's production of Driving Miss Daisy, for which he won the 1990 Big Easy Best Actor Award.
Evans was born on Marais Street, only a few blocks away from where he now lives. He was one of nine children. His father was "a laborer," he says. His mother was a housewife, but a housewife with difference: "She would quote Shakespeare to us kids to a make point. And she taught us thrift. We even had a savings club in the family, so we could get Christmas presents." Evans remembers spending long summer afternoons in the library.
After a short stint at UNO, Evans joined the Air Force, because, he says with a bemused laugh, "I wanted to be in a war." He got his wish. He was stationed in Saigon. When he got out of the Air Force, he fled a failed marriage to Los Angeles, or, as he puts it: "I went there for a weekend with a friend, to keep from killing this woman." The weekend stretched out to five and a half years.
In Los Angeles, he worked a series of odd jobs -- mostly having to do with social work -- and got a degree in psychology at a place called Saint Stephen's Educational Bible College, where he graduated valedictorian.
"At some point, I realized the weekend was over," he says, "so I came back to New Orleans, thinking to say hello to my family, and then go off somewhere where there was a revolution happening, like Guinea or Mozambique." Instead, he landed a job at the state's Office of Mental Health (where he still works) and became friends with a board member at the clinic named Virginia Landry, who was also an actress with Dashiki. She was the one who first coaxed him try out for a part.
Actress Carol Sutton remembers Evan's debut. "At one point, Harold -- who is playing a security guard -- pulls out a gun. But it falls from his hand. In fact, it falls right down to the lower level. You see, we were up on a platform. So Harold jumps down, right through the imaginary wall, and gets the gun and then climbs back up and continues the scene. And we're all thinking, I didn't see what I just thought I saw, did I?"
The mishap was no doubt due to nerves, though the real gin Evans had put in the prop bottle is also under suspicion. In any case, he was up on stage and the rest -- as they say -- is history.
Onstage and off, Evans' trademark has always been a dry, self-deprecating wit. The name on his email address, for instance, is "joeblow." In the same sardonic vein, his favorite commendation he says came to him from Dashiki Director Ted Gilliam.
"The one and only time I ever asked Ted how I was doing," relates Evans, with obvious relish. "His answer was, 'adequate.'"
- Tracie Morris/Young Studio
- Harold Evans' early introduction to theater came by way of his mother quoting Shakespeare to make a point.