Juanita Howard, 70, has the enviable mien of a lifelong New Yorker—equal parts humor, intellect, and resourcefulness. She is a self-possessed, confident woman, a woman who knows what she wants. Yet a decade ago she retired from a 30-year academic career with no specific plans for her future.
A professor of sociology and anthropology at the City University of New York, Howard loved classroom teaching and her work with students, particularly those with academic challenges who needed support to meet academic requirements for graduation. As Howard describes it, her workday extended beyond the classroom, and she had to spend considerable “emotional labor” to be effective in her position. Then there was the necessary administrative work beyond the classroom, the strictures of academia-—committee work, meetings, working with junior faculty members to secure promotions—that she was less enamored of.
Here’s where the “resourceful New Yorker” part comes in. Juanita Howard is a wonderful singer . . . a jazz singer. All her life she’s sung, as she explained in a recent interview, to help pay tuition and to buy a car and many other things. She takes her ability to sing in stride, as if we all possessed the talent to sing well enough to earn some money—let alone sufficient money to buy a car or pay school fees.
One day she accompanied a friend who was taking an acting class at St. Philip’s Church Community Center in Harlem. Howard had been in high school with Tony Curtis—who was then Bernard Schwartz—but she had no “acting bug”; she went to the acting class on a lark. She recalls that the class was taught by two women, Janice Jenkins and Dolly Fox, the latter a stand-up comic. One of the teachers suggested that she do background work as an actress—be an “extra,” one of those actors one sees going about their business in crowds, stores, etc., to lend verisimilitude to films and TV shows. In a short time, she secured a role as a jury member on Law & Order, the fabled television series set in New York. “Somehow I seemed to fit what the director needed,” Howard recalled. That experience spurred her to take more classes to improve her skills.
Whether she’s teaching in a classroom or being taught how to audition, perform a monologue, run through a scene, or to walk into a room with confidence, Howard contends, the experience of pedagogy left her open to learning a new set of skills. Having spent so much of her life in a learning environment, she adapted easily to acting classes. Parts in Off Off Broadway productions, commercials, and radio work led her to the coveted union membership in SAG, the Screen Actors Guild; AFTRA, an affiliated union; and an Actors Equity card, without which actors find it difficult to secure roles. Notes Howard, “Nothing guarantees you work. You’ve got to find work.” That means auditions. She auditions, and her manager also helps secure roles for her. Most recently Howard appeared as a nurse on an episode of Army Wives, and she’s also in the film Tower Heist.
What’s most important to Howard in her new line of work is knowing who she is, acknowledging that as a character actress, “You will look different all the time.” She works in a range of ages, and she doesn’t try to be 50 anymore. These days she auditions for roles that require women ages 60 to 75, noting that there is considerable commercial work for older people from AARP; insurance companies and drug company ads; episodic television; Off Broadway; and more. Among the ancillary skills Howard acquired in her new career is the ability to age herself credibly. If a director insists that her hair be white, an application of “clown white” will temporarily whiten her hair. Ricky’s beauty stores are the uninitiated actor’s best resource. She learns, too, from the sisterhood of others, some lifelong actors in the profession who meet at auditions and share tradecraft. Casting calls of vets are much like parties.
Howard is having fun. She has no trepidation. Asked if there are roles she’d like to play, she offers that she’d love to be a judge on Law & Order: SVU.” Asked if she’d accept the role of “cougar” with Denzel Washington as the target, Howard cracks, “I’ve never forgotten him in his shorts” (in A Soldier’s Story, a play from the 1980s, in which Washington appeared in boxers). Nice work if you can get it.