Shezwae Powell is the department chair for the Theater Arts Department of Menifee’s Mt. San Jacinto College. She was born in Riverside and was involved in a number of creative endeavors as she grew up including dance classes, church choir and piano lessons. Her father was a jazz musician and educator, and he saw nothing but opportunity for his daughter in the wake of the civil rights movement. Growing up, Powell and her family saw a professional career in her future.
After considering the traditional list of jobs like being a doctor or lawyer, the family came to the realization that “being a psychologist would do.” Powell attended University of California Berkeley where she received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Upon graduation, she began substitute teaching and launched a career in social work in the San Francisco area.
“Unfortunately, I quickly realized that social work was not for me,” Powell said. “I couldn’t help people through that institution as much as I thought I would be able to, it was a bit soul destroying.”
One day, Powell was sitting at her desk feeling more terrible and dejected than usual and stumbled upon a newspaper article calling for singers near San Francisco. Powell thought of her upbringing in the arts and knew that she would be the perfect fit for the role. She auditioned for “Hair,” the musical, got the part, quit her job in social work and never looked back, she said.
“I never would have thought that a little ad in someone else’s newspaper would have changed my life how it did. I got into the industry that would end up being my life’s calling and made friendships that I still have today,” the actress said.
Powell’s first major gig in “Hair” led to many more opportunities. She ended up traveling cross-country with her fellow cast members and one of the show’s producers. One stop that the group made was Las Vegas where they provided performance and morale support to the city’s own production of “Hair.” The city was not accustomed to serious theatrical performances at the time and having fellow performers in the audience helped to encourage and inspire the cast. In addition to having the opportunity to help out some fellow thespians, the group also enjoyed nice hotels, Vegas living and horseback riding.
Shortly after her travel experience, Powell auditioned for “No Place to be Somebody,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Charles Gordone. She had the opportunity to audition with the playwright himself, who was very dismissive at first. Powell said she gave him a piece of her mind and caught the man off guard when she actually hit him on the head with her rolled up script pages.
“That’s the kind of fire I want!” Gordone exclaimed.
“I didn’t get the part I wanted, but I was placed as an understudy for two of the role and worked my way up. I guess I was a bit naive after my early success with ‘Hair.’ I thought that I could do anything. It was around this time that I really got serious about my acting and performance. I enrolled in some vocal and acting lessons and just kept moving forward,” Powell said.
Powell has performed in five Broadway shows, including being the stand-by performer for three leading roles in “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” This opportunity required Powell to memorize the lines, stage direction, choreography and vocal harmonies for all of the parts and really helped to show her what it took to be ready for anything. The lead part in the show was played by Nell Carter, who was known to dislike matinee performances; as a result, Powell was called on often to fill in. She traveled to London with the show where she was offered a position as the premier singer at a new restaurant/cabaret that was just opening.
“It gave me a chance to sing jazz which was very popular in Paris,” Powell said. “The whole thing was kind of an homage to my father, who was also a jazz musician when he wasn’t being a teacher.”
She ended up recording music in France and touring, which led to meeting her soon-to-be husband who was the sound engineer on her tour. He was from England, and they married and moved to London where Powell lived for 20 years. In London, she continued to work in the theater appearing in 12 West End shows as well as becoming more involved with television work both in front of and behind the camera.
At times she said she found herself rushing to get from one place to another. Powell got a role in a Neil Simon play with night’s performances. She would often have to leave on the first early morning train to make it to her production job at BBC Television.
“The way I was raised was to never rest on my laurels and that having one string on your bow was never enough,” Powell said. “I may not be a household name, but I was able to make a good living in the acting world for over 30 years. I was always interested in doing as many things as possible in as many styles as possible.”
Powell has been enriching the local creative culture for years as a director and educator at Mt. San Jacinto College. It is for her service to the community and her dedication to her craft that Arts Council Menifee named her as its Artist of the Month for January 2020.