Jackson State University alumna Tommie Tonea Stewart was honored with a Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in a ceremony at Jackson’s Duling Hall in February.
Stewart and four other honorees were selected by peers in the arts industry from 34 qualified nominations submitted by the public.
She is best known for her role as “Aunt Etta Kibbe” on “In the Heat of the Night,” a TV role that required her to undergo 3½ hours of age makeup to transform her youthful features into those of an elderly woman. Memorably, she played “Old Cora” in an episode of “American Horror Story” on the FX Channel, which starred Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates.
The acclaimed actress has been in big-screen productions, including “A Time to Kill” that earned her an NAACP Image Award nomination and in “Mississippi Burning.”
During the ceremony, Stewart expressed gratitude to JSU: “The students and the faculty and the staff made me a queen, something I had never dreamed of becoming.” She also attributed her successful career to the mentorship of professor and famed writer Margaret Walker Alexander.
Performed nationally and internationally
Stewart has performed at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and in numerous stage productions in the United States, Canada, Mexico and South Korea. In 1969, she was the first African-American to direct or star in a play at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre, one of Mississippi’s most prestigious Equity Theatres. She has toured in professional presentations such as “A Member of the Wedding” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Equally passionate about performing, as well as teaching theater arts, Stewart began her classroom career as a teaching assistant at Lanier High School and taught for more than 20 years at Jackson State University. The Greenwood native is a tenured faculty member and dean of visual and performing arts at Alabama State University in Montgomery.
Skilled in the classroom and in the arts
Stewart graduated from Jackson State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and theatre and went on to study at The University of California at Santa Barbara, receiving a master’s degree in theatre arts. She was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in theatre arts from Florida State University. Further, she studied acting under well-known coaches such as Beah Richards, Frank Silvera and Joseph Papp.
She is involved in many community programs such as TAPS: Theatre Arts and Performance School, Camp 3T: Teaching Through Theatre and summer performance and enrichment programs. Stewart also serves as the spokesperson for One Church, One Child of Alabama and Alabama Adult Foster Care.
Other honorees include: Tom “Bones” Malone, a jazz musician/arranger/producer; Claudia Cartee, clay artist; Scott Barretta, blues music historian and radio host; and Tig Notaro, comedian. Stewart has also received an Alabama Governor’s Arts Award.