Barbara Howard hopes to help make the world a better place for everyone. And if all she did toward that end was sing, her contribution would be substantial.
Howard, however, an Albany native and Bishop Maginn grad who recently earned her master’s degree in elementary education, does so much more. Her vocal talents make up just a small part of what she calls her “ministry,” an all-out assault on poverty and other evils in the world using the many tools provided by arts education.
Currently starring in “Caroline, or Change” at the Schenectady Light Opera Company, Howard has performed gospel music at churches around the U.S. and in Great Britain, and is an enthusiastic partner with her husband, Pastor Ronald Howard, in his work at the Blessed Hope Worship Center at 185 Central Ave. in Albany.
Howard majored in business administration and minored in theater at SUNY Brockport, and then, after a substantial break and while serving as a teacher’s aide, returned to school at The College of Saint Rose and earned a teaching degree.
Her first theatrical performance as a young teenager was in “Babes in Arms” with the Empire State Institute of Performing Arts at The Egg, and much more recently she has worked with C-R Productions at the Cohoes Music Hall in “Ragtime,” and “Raisin in the Sun” with Our Own Productions in Schenectady. Her performance as Lena Younger in “Raisin in the Sun” earned her a TANY (Theatre Association of New York) Award.
Howard’s talent earned her another plum role in “Caroline, or Change,” which opened at SLOC this weekend and runs today as well as next Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was nominated for six Tony Awards in 2004, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
Howard, the youngest of eight siblings, and her husband have two daughters — one is in law school the other is a teacher — who both live in Washington, D.C.
Q: When did you start performing?
A: Singing and performing in general, whether it’s reading poetry or putting on skits in high school, has always been a big part of my life. Once one of my older sisters, Wanda, realized I could sing, she started drilling me. She had some training in church music, and she taught me, so I have to give her some credit. And another sister, Carolyn [McLaughlin] also helped me a lot.
Q: How did “Caroline, or Change,” come about?
A: I had been involved in a “Ragtime” production at Cohoes a few years ago, and I played Sarah’s friend, who has this major selection at the closing of the first act. While I was there, I met Michael Lotano, who is music director for “Caroline, or Change,” and I guess he found me on Facebook back in February of last year. He told me how he was going to do this play and wanted to know if I would audition for it. I had never done anything at SLOC, but it’s been a wonderful experience.
Q: Tell us about your character, Caroline.
A: It’s set in the ’60s in Louisiana at the height of the civil rights movement, and she works as a domestic for a Jewish family. She has some financial struggles and is dealing with emotional issues, but she’s not crazy. She just sees all this change taking place in the country, so her question is: Does she move on with the times, or does she just stay Caroline?
She has a friend, Dottie, who has gone back to school and taken advantage of the times, but it’s difficult for Caroline to do that because she has four children and she’s divorced. She has a lot of responsibility, and while she’d like to navigate through all that’s happening and change, it’s more comfortable for her to stay where she is.
Q: Did you relate to Caroline’s situation?
A: My mom worked as a domestic. Both my mother and my father grew up in the South before they migrated up North after the war [World War II]. My father worked as a laborer with Callanan Industries [the concrete and construction business], and finally they got enough money to buy a little grocery store near the Governor’s Mansion in the Little Italy section of Albany at the corner of Grand and Phillip streets. They worked hard and sent all their children to college, so I was particularly drawn to this character and I used my own family when I was researching the role.
Q: In a perfect world, what kind of music would you sing?
A: In a perfect world, I have all these different settings, and I would be able to sing whatever I wanted to sing. My voice is suited for the stage and suited for church and jazz, but above and beyond just singing I want to do something that will enrich a child’s educational experience. That’s one of my primary goals. I want to use different settings and use my talents holistically, whether it be singing or acting or just telling a story, to inspire people to move from where they are to where they want to be. Any art form, whatever it is you do, should be something that will push people to the next level and improve their life.
Q: How do you spend your time when you’re not performing or working?
A: I’m involved a lot in our church — it’s non-denominational — and we do a lot of outreach programs through it. It’s very important to me not to just give the gift of song, but to also bring something else to the table. I’m also involved in the Soul Rebel Performance Troupe, and our goal there is to provide venues for people of color to be able to perform. We want to give them a platform to do their thing.
When I was a young girl growing up, nobody was going to choose me to do “The Sound of Music” or “Annie.” Back then even if you were liberal or progressive, that wasn’t going to happen. So what we want to do is open doors for people, and not just for the theater. It’s about literature and poetry, and opening up those areas to people of color.