Mississippi-born film and television actor Tommie Tonea Stewart speaks with a voice that personifies wisdom burgeoned through time and experience. So when Stewart talks about her latest project the Netflix biopic “Come Sunday,” it’s best to listen.A Greenwood native and Jackson State University alumna, Stewart is best known for her recurring role as Miss Etta Kibbee in the television series “In the Heat of the Night.” Her other credits include “A Time to Kill,” “Matlock” and “Girl’s Trip.”
“Come Sunday,” streaming now, stars Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) as Bishop Carlton Pearson, the one-time charismatic star of a Pentecostal church with a congregation over 5,000 strong. When he veers from his usual Bible teachings and begins spouting the gospel of universal reconciliation, Pearson is ousted by his religious peers and condemned as a heretic sending him on a journey rife with hardships.
“I think it’s a meaningful movie. I think it’s a timely movie that addresses the questions: ‘What are we doing today? Where are we today?’ How do we survive?’” she said. “We’ve got to know that there is a power greater than earthly man and us does not have all the answers.”
Stewart plays Pearson’s mother, who serves as a source of advice and encouragement in the midst of the storms he encounters. Calling his journey compelling and interesting, she agrees that it is a story that needs to be told and “audiences will walk away wanting to know and inquiring more about the Word of God and what is waiting for us on the other side.”
Stewart characterizes actor Ejiofor as a classic man, committed, focused and “definitely British,” she says with a laugh, referring to his United Kingdom upbringing.
“He carries himself differently. He’s uniquely different. And I could see why Hollywood would call him because he brings a perspective that we don’t see every day here,” she said.
Life lessons in an Emmett Till era
Growing up in a very religious and spiritual community, attending church was routine for Stewart and her sister, but education was also paramount. “Everyone wanted to make sure we were motivated to learn, and everybody was our teacher. The community definitely raised us,” she said.
Her mother was an educator who taught in the town of Money for 19 years. Stewart discloses that her father’s lack of education was problematic for her grandmother. “She wanted my mother to marry a doctor or a principal or something, you know.”
Despite her father being unable to write his name, she said he was a talented man who worked as an electrician and a plumber. Her parents divorced when she was 4 years old, but her mother made sure she and her sister maintained a relationship with him.Stewart said life in the Mississippi Delta had its balances and imbalances. She recalls playing with Emmitt Till outside a store one summer in Money before learning of his brutal death a week or so later.
“I loved my years in Mississippi even though there were turbulent years. We had one blow after another from (the deaths of) Emmett Till to (the murders of civil rights workers) Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. The integration of the schools. The Klan,” she said.
“And even with all of that, we felt like we had a sense of realness. … We were able to know who hated us and who didn’t like us and we gave them their space.”
Stewart explains that losing so many people and understanding when the world does not love you, you must first learn to love and protect yourself and your family.
“Instead of our hating people, which was easy to do, we still loved. Now, here lately, we’re seeing many of the children of those who were against us are really with us. They are seeing that we are human and we hurt as anyone else hurts. And we want the same things that everybody else wants.”
A grandmother’s grief
At the age of 16, Stewart lost her mother to sudden complications stemming from high blood pressure. It was a heartbreaking blow for the aspiring doctor and her sister, but their grandmother proved to have a more difficult time coping with the tragedy.
Stewart was a member of a singing group that had auditioned to appear on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in Memphis. They received a call-back and were set to compete against Patti LaBelle & the Bells for a chance at the finals.
“My grandmother, at the time, had become extremely protective after losing her only daughter. My schoolmate’s parent came to pick me up and (my grandmother) stood in the door and blocked me from going,” said Stewart. “We were all very hurt. But we didn’t know that she had taken her daughter’s death so seriously that it caused her to have a breakdown.”
Pattie & the Bells won the competition, and the rest is history said Stewart with a chuckle. She acknowledges her group would not have gotten any leverage on Patti Labelle, but they could’ve possibly received a record deal. It’s a story she and Labelle laugh about today.
Thee I Love
In middle school and junior high school, Stewart was successful in the sciences, which is what prompted her desire to be a doctor. However, it wasn’t until her sophomore year at Jackson State University, where she garnered success as a student-actor that she decided to change her major from biology to theater.
Prior to attending JSU, the Delta girl had also received scholarships from Mississippi Valley State University and Ohio State University. Deeming Mississippi Valley too close to home and Ohio State too far, she settled on Jackson State, declaring that “it turned out to be, for me, the best fit, and I also believe it was God’s work.”
However, what was turning out not to be the best fit was her choice of major. Stewart discovered that she was very uncomfortable with dissecting “hairy animals.” One day, unable to hide her disgust, she ran out of class and into the hallway to pray, asking God for guidance.The sophomore found herself in the classroom of her introduction to theater Professor E.J. Fischer. On campus, Fischer had been a familiar face that remembered Stewart from her participation, as a youth, in the many dramatic arts and singing competitions he hosted and judged.
“He said, ‘I need to you to come audition tomorrow night…’ and I got the lead role in a play called ‘High Ground’ where I played a nun,” she said. And with that, Stewart became a speech and theater major.
The actress says her memorable moments at JSU are numerous and describes the school as a carryover from her community in the Delta. She said the professors made her feel as if she had reached another level and needed to be pushed higher.
“I looked forward to getting up in the morning and going to my classes because I knew I was going to learn something new. I knew I was going to be exposed to something challenging and that I had to step up to the plate. There was no time to lollygag. We had to do it today,” she said.
While at JSU, Stewart won countless awards and was nominated best actress by the National Association of Speech and Dramatic Arts Conference three of the four years she attended the HBCU.In 1968, Stewart won NASDA’s Best Actress award in addition to being crowned queen of her HBCU. “I received the announcement that I had won (Miss JSU) while we competed in South Carolina at the conference,” she said. Unbeknownst to Stewart, NASDA’s Best Actor winner that year, Samuel L. Jackson, would one day play her husband in the thought-provoking drama “A Time to Kill.”
After graduating from JSU and receiving a master’s degree in theater arts from the University of California at Santa Barbara, she returned to JSU as a professor. Later, she became the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in theater from Florida State University.
“I was shocked,” said Stewart, when asked about this achievement. “It just hadn’t dawned on me. But I should’ve realized it because in all my classes I was the only African American in the class, period.” She chuckles.
She now lives in Alabama, where she serves as dean of the College of Visual & Performing Arts at Alabama State University.
As an actor, Stewart said her biggest accomplishment is being able to gain the opportunities she has sought out. She defines her greatest hurdle as attempting to do and be so many things at one time.
“I’ve had to be wife, mother, educator, performer, motivational speaker, nurse, we’ve raised about seven children outside of our own. Just to be able to get the strength to complete so many things at the same time. In doing it all, I found joy,” she said.
Her advice to aspiring actors is “Don’t wait for someone else to validate you. You know what you have as your talent. You know who you are. You give it your best and then let it go.”
On the horizon for Stewart is a new film she began shooting last week. But what she is most looking forward to, she said, is her 50th golden class reunion at JSU.
“My year is 2019. I’m looking to coming back and standing there with my golden diploma. I love that school, Jackson State University.”