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Booker T.’s Theater Teacher Exits Stage Left

After 32 years in the classroom, Booker T.’s Louise Smith takes her final bow from the theater cluster she helped start.
By Glenn Arbery |
photography by Matthew Hawthorne

On a stormy day in late March, Louise Smith waits beside the main office of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. To call this school that name, though, feels like an act of faith, since it requires that one believe in the unchanged soul of an institution whose body and locale have changed radically. The school will return to its original downtown location in late April, after a huge renovation and expansion. But for the time being it operates in exile, in the rundown-looking Nolan Estes Plaza, off South R.L. Thornton Freeway.

Smith is retiring after 32 years as head of the theater cluster. She wants to be closer to her grandchildren in New England. She did some of her last work moving from Nolan Estes, a space plagued with black mold and other problems, back to the renovated campus on Routh Street at the edge of the Arts District, where it takes a Pritzker Prize to get in. Yet she doesn’t seem bothered by the irony of not getting to teach in the new space. She’s equable, charming, and present, which perhaps explains why her former students say things in the vein of actor Douglass Burks, who was in the Arts Magnet’s first graduating class. “She was a very kind person,” he says. “And what’s remarkable is that she’s exactly the same person now.”

Smith takes me through labyrinthine passages back toward a quiet place to talk—a rehearsal room lined with scores of cardboard boxes she’s been packing for the move. Stuffed chairs make a circle in the middle of the room. Slight and trim, with the bearing of a ballerina, Smith sits forward on her chair with easy alertness as we talk about the school she helped start back in 1976, when Paul Baker asked her to design the theater curriculum. Smith was Baker’s graduate student at the Dallas Theater Center, so he knew her well.

Thinking about the early days brings back memories of the fight to get the Arts Magnet into Booker T. Washington High School on Routh Street. At the time, the Dallas ISD had two choices. One was a Dr Pepper warehouse near Fair Park—that’s the one “they really wanted us to use, because that’s where all the arts were, at Fair Park,” she says. The other was Booker T., the original “colored” high school in Dallas County, which had fallen into disuse by the mid-’70s. Baker strongly preferred the latter, and he enlisted the help of the black community to get it approved. The school moved in eight years before the completion of the DMA, 13 years before the Meyerson opened. “That’s why we have the expression ‘first in the Arts District,’ ” Smith says.

Nearby, Hotel ZaZa spills upscale clientele into Benzes and Bentleys from a corner of Uptown. It’s easy for the city to forget what used to occupy all this prime real estate. Smith has sharp things to say about the “terrible times” of the school’s first decade. Completed in the early 1920s, the original high school had served the black population of Dallas County, including Freedman’s Town, where, as Smith puts it, “all the African-Americans who worked in Highland Park used to live.” But by the 1980s, real estate developers had different plans for the old neighborhood.

“One of our teachers actually lived in Freedman’s Town while she was teaching with us, and it’s when the real estate people were trying to get that land. What they did was they broke into her house several times, but the last time they came in, they took her children’s clothes out of their drawers and laid them on the bed. Sort of like, ‘We know where you live. We know you’ve got children.’ It was a threat!” Smith and the other teachers used to go over to Freedman’s Town after rehearsals on Saturdays, just trying to save something of the neighborhood from destruction. Smith found beautiful irises, dug up the bulbs, and planted them around her own house.

“I must tell you a funny thing,” she says. “I was so naïve. Around our school there was just gravel where we parked, and there were two-story shotgun houses, all painted gray, where Trammell Crow’s daughter has her building.” It’s now One Arts Plaza, headquarters of 7-Eleven (and Smith mentions in passing that she taught Lucy Billingsley at the Dallas Theater Center). “There were women who sat on the front porches. Anytime it looked like somebody was bothering our cars, they’d call the office. They were our security guards. But then we found out what they were!” she says, laughing. “Yes, they were! But anyway, they were our security guards, too.” The oldest profession provided them flexible hours for unpaid moonlighting gigs.

The success of those ladies in protecting Booker T. Washington from early harm can hardly be disputed, especially with stars like Norah Jones and Erykah Badu as alumni, or graduates of Smith’s theater cluster like Elizabeth Mitchell of Lost. Hosts of others pursue every dimension of the arts across the country. As for academic bragging rights, two seniors from the school—one last year and one two years before—were named Presidential Scholars. Asher Frankfurt, who won for playwriting and screenwriting, came from Smith’s cluster, and she uses him as the example of the opportunities the school affords, since it draws public school students from all backgrounds.

“Asher was in New York to accept a reward for playwriting, and Edward Albee was there and spoke to him about the importance of plays as opposed to screenwriting. But Albee has kept writing him. Albee said, ‘I want you to come back. I have two shows opening in New York, and I want you to come and see those shows.’ So he keeps encouraging him—which is incredible! Isn’t that incredible?”

Those who know Louise Smith might share the wonder that the notoriously irascible Albee has shown such favor to an 18-year-old writer, but they find it entirely credible that her graduates win recognition. Paul Baker’s daughter Robyn Flatt, executive artistic director of Dallas Children’s Theater, has known Smith since they were children in Waco, and she has watched her develop the Arts Magnet from the beginning.

“Louise created a brilliant theater cluster at Arts Magnet High School,” Flatt says. Young actors get a far greater range of training than they would elsewhere, because “performers are immersed in studies of classical theater as well as movement, mime, and mask work.” But the cluster is far from being centered on actors alone. Flatt points out the support for young writers (the school stages several new one-act plays every year) and for visual artists, who take classes in scenic, costume, and lighting design.

In designing the curriculum, Smith took a graduate theater program and, by using simpler language, wrote the same kinds of courses. “I knew that we needed to have movement courses and diction courses and some kind of theater history. I’ve always taught the classics,” she says. “The Greeks and Shakespeare and realism.”

New work is equally important to her. She reads about 50 plays over Christmas break every year, and this year, she asked Kevin Moriarty, the Dallas Theater Center’s new artistic director, to read some of the student plays. He has been back at the high school on three occasions since. “He’s just very enthusiastic,” Smith says.

That’s a classic understatement. When I e-mailed Moriarty about her, his response came back almost immediately.

“Who would have thought 32 years ago that contemporary students in an American public school could rise to the challenge of understanding and performing great works of world drama and creating their own unique, personal work to share with others? Louise Smith, that’s who,” Moriarty says. “Her generosity, creativity, determination, and perseverance have created a program that will flourish and grow long after she has retired. Booker T. Washington is one of the most impressive public schools I’ve ever seen.”

When I talked to Smith, no replacement had been chosen. She hopes that it will be someone already at the school who understands its integrated approach. “If a person were to come in who focused only on acting or only on any one element of the theater, our philosophy would fall apart,” she says. For Smith herself, the sustaining joy has been the discovery of talent in ways that only a public arts school could foster, and it seems especially fitting that the move back to Routh Street rounds out her teaching career, because it recalls the source of the school’s national renown.

“Kids from every background have gone out and succeeded,” she says. But it’s not just the success per se that moves her. “When you have an intense student that, as you see their talents, and then other people recognize them, and they get known, it’s just, it’s just—it’s a life that none of them ever, ever thought about, and to see life blossoming for them is very exciting. It truly is.”

Blossoming: it’s a teacher’s metaphor for what happens when you find and transplant futures that might be neglected, like iris bulbs in Freedman’s Town.

Glenn Arbery is a senior editor for People Newspapers and a contributing editor to D Magazine. Write to [email protected].