In this, the “Get-famous-by-any-means-necessary” era where table-flipping, hair-pulling, horrible music and thirty-second marriages are considered great television entertainment; where everybody is moving to LA to “pursue acting” it has become increasingly difficult to weed out those who only seek fame at any cost from those who are serious about the craft of acting. Just when we have almost been lulled to sleep by the drone of demoralizing drama, the spotlight falls and we are jolted awake by an actress who reminds us of what true talent looks, sounds and works like. She is Dallas-born, world-reared Kendyl Joi. Her story is one of shell-breaking and confidence-building through gifts and talents she initially didn’t even realize she possessed. 15+ years of education under her belt. Numerous on-stage accolades. A successful crossover into television with some of the most revered actors in the business. A soul-stirring book of poetry entitled, “Wake Me Up!” which was transformed into a hungrily-received one-woman stage production. And I can’t prove it but I think she can fly, too.
I was able to catch up with the TVOne “Love That Girl” actress to pick her brain about the business and to bask in the glow of her poise, faith-built self-assurance and drive.
HS: Thank you for sharing your amazing story with HerSOUL. It’s so necessary for young Black women to see other young Black women who’ve pursued their passion. I have to say I am blown away by just the amount of time you’ve spent STUDYING your craft, let alone all of the productions you’ve been a part of! You laid a very solid foundation of 15+ years of education, not just in the US but even overseas which is absolutely commendable. Did you take breaks in your schooling or did you go straight through?
KJ: Thank you for interviewing me! After completing my BFA at the University of Minnesota Guthrie Theater Program, I got cast in several theatrical shows in Minneapolis and a film which was exciting. [This] allowed me to build my confidence professionally but I never thought of taking my career to film or television. At that time in my life, I had only known actors to successfully develop their craft on stage. But as time went on, I had more to learn. Due to the below zero climate and the heavy snow in Minnesota, I eventually planned an escape to Vancouver, British Columbia to go to film school. This would be my first time training behind the camera. [It was] so beneficial to me because I was forced to reveal myself, Kendyl Joi, which I wasn’t accustomed to as an actor. I had only done a lot of character work, period pieces and mime. Yes I was a mime! Film demanded that “I” show up at a time when I didn’t even know me.
HS: Were there ever times when you just wanted to quit and if so, what helped you to push through?
KJ: There were many times on my journey I wanted to desperately go another way! Truth be told, I never once dreamed of being an actor. I like to say that I was called to do this. No one in my entire family is an artist or actor, except Samuel L. Jackson by marriage (whom I have yet to meet). I only knew success by superior education from my mother or law school from my brother. I have always been a quiet and reserved person who only opened up to those I trusted. But acting broke that shell, at least on stage.
The one thing I can say that has kept me on the path and from getting cussed out by my mother (She’s going to kill me for saying this!) on the first day I walked through the doors of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, was God Almighty. I thought that school was the weirdest place on earth! Every year I had to pray for courage to overcome my will because pursuing arts did not make sense to me but I believed in what my mother saw as an educator. She taught me that a liberal mind makes the best professionals. I prayed that God would order my footsteps because if it was up to me I would have left running barefoot the other way! Seriously. So, obedience to the gift given to me and to the high calling God Almighty has on my life as His daughter is the reason I do what I do. My gift of acting or representing the truth in people is the vehicle I ride to my destiny and boy, has it been a blessed experience! I’m thankful.
HS: Besides honing your skills as an actress, what one experience has helped to shape who you are as an actress?
KJ:My discipline, being the only black in many of my schools, and my faith as a Christian are the experiences that built my character as Kendyl Joi and as an actress. Even as reserved as I was, I always had a “quietfire” mentality. I believed I was the chosen, and would come out on top. I knew from a little girl I wanted to live for God but didn’t know how and was too shy to speak up about it. I always let people get the best of me and influence me the wrong way [which] led me to compromise my standards more than once. I also knew as a Christian pursuing acting, I didn’t want to be a “hoe” or be seen as one and I never wanted to sell out for money and fame. My faith and discipline gave me the confidence and boldness to stand up for my character in God, along with the countless hours I spent studying the Bible which I truly believed was my real script on the stage of life.
HS: As a serious actress who obviously is dedicated to the art what is one piece of advice you would give a 20-year-old young Black woman who is living paycheck to paycheck, waitressing at night and preparing for auditions by day, waiting for her big chance?
KJ: I would ask her, “What is [your] purpose as an actress? Is it fame? Is it fortune? And who told you to act?” I believe what God has called you to do, He will take care of you in His will and IF you stay in His will. Your works and dedication are a given. If you’re doing it because you want to do it and you were not called, then you’re on your own. Also, if wanting to act is simply a desire to be pretty in front of a camera, you may very well be successful, but beauty fades. What is your long term purpose? Do you have an education, a business plan, something else that will sustain you long term when work is slow? In my book, keeping God first always, patience, hard work, having a good plan, sacrifice, and a focused mind are keys to success. Never lose your soul just to gain a few dollars, a few fans, TV time or even the whole world. Beware who is blessing you.
HS: You eventually became a part of TVOne’s television series ‘Love That Girl’ produced by Martin Lawrence, starring the lovely Tatyana Ali as main character, Tyana. I enjoyed the show because it had a healthy balance of comedy and sage wisdom in your character, Nefertiti. I found myself actually admiring Nefertiti because of her ability to be a great friend to Tyana but also a consistent baseline of support, knowledge and insight. How much does that character mirror you? What has been the best thing about working on the show?
KJ: What an honor to work on LOVE THAT GIRL! I still praise God Almighty for that opportunity and the beautiful family He introduced me to. I will always appreciate Bentley Kyle Evans, Stacey Evans Morgan and the whole team for believing in me. I would say I am a lot like Nefertiti with her serenity and style. Her character has so much more room for growth and depth, but I loved the fact that she was a business owner because ownership is key, especially in our community. The best thing about working on the show was the overall experience. I love the cast. Working behind the camera is very new to me so I took it as a wonderful beginning and training ground for the glorious future ahead!
* You can watch snippets of Kendyl Joi's media clips here.
HS: Maya Angelou once spoke about the importance of having “sheroes” in our lives. Which women (famous or not) have really helped guide/shape who you are as a Black woman?
KJ: My mother, Dr. Ora Lee Watson, is one of the strongest women I know. She doesn’t allow adversity or material loss to keep her from success. I’ve always admired her for that and believe that is the reason I don’t get caught up in the hype of things. She and Noah from the Bible have taught me to keep on building! Aside from her, I always admired a list of old school and modern Black female actors and musicians. I am an old school junkie and a sponge in many ways. If I see a light in someone I’m normally the person that will sit under him/her and catch the rays.
HS: Speaking of Maya Angelou, you’re a poet as well, with a published book and successful one-woman show under your belt. Congratulations on that success! What was your inspiration for the book of poetry? How has poetry influenced you as an actress?
KJ: My inspiration for my poetry was from a trip to Cape Town, South Africa when I studied Dramatic Writing. My roommate, Patrice, was a writer from New York and spoke the easiness of writing poetry into my life. After an open mic in Cape Town, I got inspired, came home that night and started writing. The next thing I knew, words were flowing out of me like water. Writing poetry helped me to perform me. I enjoyed exploring myself and sharing it with the world. It tore down a lot of walls, I’ll say that!
HS: Was your goal to move from the stage to television or was that just the flow of events? How easy (or hard) was that transition?
KJ: My last-minute decision to move to Los Angeles after successfully completing film school in Vancouver was my transition into film and yes it was a weird transition! Acting on television/film is like putting the key in the ignition of a fancy car and then turning it off… and that frustrated the mess out of me. I was like, “Don’t put me in this car if I can’t drive it!” I want to drive and theater allows you to do that.
HS: In following you on Facebook I find it refreshing that you speak boldly and often of your faith. Many are not as open about their faith in an attempt to remain politically correct. Is there room for faith in your line of work? How has your faith shaped your life?
KJ: Being an “in-the-closet” Christian is what got me in trouble in the first place! Had I been a gangsta about my God and not cared about offending [people], I might have been better off in a lot of situations! I take my love for and duty to Jesus Christ very seriously. He is my LORD and my KING. There is no reason why I should be shy or afraid to live for Him personally or professionally. If anyone else believes a different way and has the nerve to live accordingly, I too have the right to live and believe [the way I choose]. My life decisions are based on my faith in the Word of God. It’s not easy living this way and is often frustrating, but I know my purpose is beyond this temporary world. Life as a Christian has evolved in SO many ways. I keep the commandments of God which includes keeping the Sabbath Holy (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown). My first thought was that no one would book me for that reason because EVERYTHING happens on the Lord’s Sabbath. But I was extremely fortunate to come across people in the field that understood my Sabbath observance. If work was still going on, I would leave before sundown or show up the next day after sundown, once Sabbath was over. Not everyone will understand and I know that, and it’s ok. It’s just one day! My faith makes me stronger, courageous, bolder, wiser, and focused. I know what’s really important at the end of the day. I have balance and most of all, I have true Love. P.S. If you make room for God, God will make room for you.
HS: You spoke about the state of Black women in your interview with Staci Harris saying that for many years we ‘have been wearing someone else’s identity’ and we’re afraid of who we are naturally. You said something else that really struck me as profound, “You have to lose yourself to gain yourself.” This resonates on so many levels. I didn’t learn to embrace who I am until COLLEGE and I’ve met so many young ladies who have had that same sort of battle. Was there ever a time when you dealt with not truly loving your identity as a Black woman? What words of encouragement do you have for the high school-age, college-age, recent college grads who have yet to find, accept and love their true selves?
KJ: There have always been times when I’ve felt unbeautiful. I don’t think I saw or understood what others saw in me until recently. I never understood comments like, “She think she’s cute!” because I never thought of myself as cute. I saw everyone else as cute, but not me. I knew I always wanted to be the woman God created me to be, a woman after His heart, holy, natural, God-fearing, and bearing the fruits of His Spirit. When I was/am in alignment with these things, I felt/feel beautiful. I would encourage women of all ages to love who God created them to be, which is beautiful. I love natural hair, but if that doesn’t fit you, then do you. I hate the light skin dark skin tone dilemma with sisters of color. I come from a mixed family [of all nationalities] and shades; a beautiful, fair-skinned mother and a handsome, dark-skinned father. I have always seen all shades as beautiful. Now what I don’t like is someone destroying themselves to be someone they were not meant to be whether through medical procedures, or just some other forms of foolishness! Work on your insides, and the rest will follow. If you want change, you have to be willing to let go so newness can grow…and get ready for the not so pretty stage which is just a season like Fall or Winter.
HS: In speaking on “Naturalness” and loving ourselves as Black women, I ADORE your dreadlocks! I’ve thought about locking my own hair but haven’t gotten up the nerve. Was there ever a point where others did not appreciate/accept your hair choices? Because we’re seeing the Natural hair movement take the nation by storm and there is quite a bit of resistance to it by those who truly believe Black hair must be altered to be beautiful. I’ve even heard of people being passed over for jobs because of afros and dreads. What are your thoughts and advice to young women who are Natural or who are considering going Natural?
KJ: Thank you! I love my hair too and locs were a last minute late night decision I made a few years ago. My mother and a few others snickered at my ‘nappy hair’ when I cut it to a low fro, but I didn’t care! I felt free and beautiful. I even had two girls walk behind me in a department store and said I looked like some sort of African and laughed. I’ve been told, “ain’t nobody gon want you with that nappy sh** on yo head!” and all I can do is laugh! Laugh myself all the way to the bank! Our hair shows its strength when it is natural. It’s how God created us to be. Why be shy or embarrassed about strength? I think for so long, we’ve been conditioned to believe straight loose hair is good hair and black hair is bad hair. It’s a stronghold on our society that is making other nations rich off of our insecurities! We need to take control of ourselves and love ourselves. We are powerful beings and our hair is one small testament to that. I never wanted to die trying to hide the truth of me or being someone else (with foreign hair) and have God wake me up and hear Him say, Kendyl Joi I know and created you, but who are You?!!
HS: What’s coming up for Kendyl Joi? Where will we see you next?
KJ: Right now, I am pursuing my Master degree in Educational Psychology at Pepperdine University. I am really excited because education has ALWAYS been important to me. I am also making final touches to a family sitcom I have written. My one-woman show, "WAKE ME UP" was received well in Los Angeles and will hopefully make it’s way to Chicago soon. Other than that, I have A LOT of things in the works right now that are soon to blossom. You’ll be seeing me very soon! Thank you so much for considering me in this interview. God be with you! Peace.
I would like to offer my sincere thanks to Kendyl Joi, for giving us “HerSTORY.” Visit her website to keep up with her!