As I shared in this week’s BonBlast, Donzell Lewis is the personification of charisma as Goldie in the world premiere play, Dope Queens. When I told Donzell I wanted to write about him — and asked if he might have a word or two to share about his enoughness journey — of course he had plenty to say!
While I shared an excerpt of this piece over here, I wanted to be sure the whole story had a home as well. Donzell, m’love, take it away!
My story of wanting to perform came like many, at a very young age. I was that typical happy-go-lucky kid dancing, singing, and imitating characters around the house. I’d annoy my family with a new dance, or by singing (butchering) a Mariah Carey song or by talking over the movie imitating the actors. There was no need for my family to find a way to entertain me because I was always lost in a dream world far away living out some kind of a fantasy.
This ability to “dream” stayed with me. It carried over into school where I would be half checked into lessons and halfway checked into a dream. Sometimes I would survive school by imagining that I was on a TV show “playing a school kid.”
So needless to say, it’s clear I couldn’t escape acting. And I didn’t want to escape… I still don’t. Acting has always been my most vulnerable yet most safe space for me to exist. So you can only imagine the hurt I felt when the one thing I’ve always yearned to do was then almost taken away from me.
When I was sophomore in college the chair of the theatre department called me into his office and began to explain to me that I was “too gay” to be an actor.
Yes, you read that correctly. He continued to explain that my voice was too gay. My movement, too gay. My acting and character choices… too gay. He suggested that I leave the department and “go find something else to do with [my] life.” Because, as he explained, I would never make it as an actor being gay.
The amount of shock and pain that I felt in that moment was beyond intense. Thankfully, I had a tiny voice inside me speak up loud enough to tell me to not listen to him. And I had one mentor on the faculty who told me to ignore him and that he was dealing with issues of toxicity that had nothing to do with me. So, I stayed in the department and eventually graduated with my BFA. It wasn’t easy because year after year, I had to prove my “straightness” by playing standard straight roles.
Eventually, I moved out here to LA. The only problem is that I still heard the “chairman’s voice” in my head every step I took. I never fully escaped that moment because to me, this man who had a career on Broadway and had run this wonderful institution didn’t believe in me as I was. So I always felt that I had to cover who I was.
My first two years in LA went as followed: I wouldn’t do LGBTQ+ content. My headshots were as “straight” as I could make them. I would even change my voice when speaking to people. Because I truly believed that I was not enough. I instead, tried to become the greatest actor in the world by “changing my true existence.” I lived a double life… (or I tried). I’d be straight in casting offices and then I’d be dancing wildly, half-dressed in a WEHO bar later that night.
This double life continued until my closest friend had me take a course with Bonnie Gillespie. My world changed after one day of meeting her. At one of her “Self-Management for Actors” seminars, Bonnie looked at my headshot then she looked at me. And she said something to the effect of this: “Who is this? The guy in this headshot is not the guy who is standing in front of me. And the guy in this headshot is boring… he’s vanilla. But the one who stands in front of me, he’s the captivating one, he even has a special twinkle in his eye when he smiles. That’s that guy I want in a casting office.”
I was shocked. She saw right through me and she began to tell me how she looked at my social media. And she could tell I was “covering.” But instead of doing as the chairman had done, she then encouraged me to step into my brilliance by embracing ALL of who I am. She reminded me that “I am enough.” She didn’t want me to run from my gayness — in fact she didn’t want me to run at all. She just encouraged me to stand in the fullness of all of me.
After a few years of working closely with Bonnie, here I am today, Standing proudly in all of my queerness and never second-guessing it. Within the last two years, all of the things the chairman denounced me for have been the the very things I’ve been cast for. The tier jumps that I’ve had have been magical.
I’ve voiced-over several projects: podcasts and animated shorts for characters of both a gay black men and a drag queens. I’ve been on a Second City house improv team and been cast in their diversity showcase. I’ve competed in and won drag competitions at UCB. Last year I filmed three movies in drag. I’ve played a sassy, fun-talking news anchor in a hit online webseries where kids come up to me and say, “Hey, you’re Matt from ‘Boss Cheer’!” And I’m currently playing the most challenging and rewarding character I’ve ever played, Goldie in the world premiere play “Dope Queens,” which just opened last week to a full house where the cast walked out to a standing ovation.
All of these career achievements are amazing but they all came because I learned to embrace all of me. I can’t even begin to tell you how many jobs I’ve gotten because they said, “We love your voice! It’s so different.” And my voice has always been the one thing I’ve disliked the most about myself. Because my voice, to me, always revealed my gayness during a time when I was ashamed of who I was.
But now, the little boy who danced, sang, and fantasized his way through life has returned! The little boy who found beauty in the vulnerability and fun of the theatre is back to dreaming his way through life. And this little boy has tier jumped massively by simply doing two things: standing in my enoughness and diligently doing the work of “Self-Management for Actors.” But you can’t do the work of SMFA if you aren’t doing the work on the inner you.
One thing is for sure, I will never let anyone quiet or shut down the magic of me, ever again. Because when I lived by the rules of someone else, nothing worked. I couldn’t get cast. I couldn’t do well in class. I just couldn’t “do.” But the moment I stopped “doing” and I started to “be” that’s when all the magic BEGAN.
Moving forward, the work I do will always be for all audiences. But just know that I exist for all of the little gay black and brown boys who have a dream. And I want them to know that they never have to dim their magic and live in the darkness as I once did. I want them to stand in all of their glory and know that this world and this industry have a place for them. We too, have a seat at that table.
Donzell Lewis is an actor, comedian, drag queen, and educator originally from Richmond, VA. His award-winning queen persona — Layali Sunshine — is the warrior princess of drag, whose specialties include show-stopping syncs and performing martial arts in heels. You can check out the episode of my podcast The Work in which I interviewed Donzell right here (or at iTunes or Spotify, of course… plus at YouTube). To see Donzell change lives on stage in Los Angeles in the world premiere of Dope Queens, head over here!
Thank you, Donzell, for this amazing story of enoughness! I love you for who you are and for who you always have been. You are inspiring and I am so grateful to the phenomenal Quincy Cho for bringing you into my life!
All my love,