Shortly after MarTeze Hammonds started as Purdue University Fort Wayne’s chief diversity officer in 2020, one of his first invitations to speak on campus came from the Department of Theatre. Faculty members had recognized his background in professional theatre and performing.
When Hammonds finished, student Timya Townsend asked if he had any advice because she was considering a transfer.
“It was a really big deal for me,” Townsend said. “Finally, I had someone who looked like me, did the same thing as me, and listened and understood everything I was going through. It was nice to have a mentor figure that I could actually relate to.”
Townsend said there were only four Black students in her class, and she had no idea who Hammonds was or what he looked like before meeting him.
“When I saw him on stage, I immediately thought `He’s Black,’ and then came the flutters of hope,” Townsend said. “Because at that moment, for once in my college career, I was going to be heard by someone who was just like me. Everything we talked about at that meeting impacted me, and gave me the strength to chug along.”
And now Townsend, B.A. ’23, and Hammonds’ personal story comes full circle as they are two of the three lead actors in the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s musical presentation of “The Color Purple.” Opening night is Friday, with six shows scheduled through Feb. 18. Townsend plays Celie, and Hammonds is Mister. Dimples Smith, PFW’s learning and development director in Human Resources and Office of Institutional Equity, is also part of the ensemble.
After participating in seven shows at PFW, this will be Townsend’s third performance since graduating. She credits Hammonds with being such a positive influence.
Taking part in this production is also very personal for Hammonds who has been involved in community theatre since age 6, and has seen the musical six times. It includes a 2006 trip from Washington to New York where he luckily acquired two front-row, center seats with a friend for a Broadway performance.
“I love the movie,” Hammonds said. “For me, it started out as a young boy with the movie and then the book. I probably saw it for the first time when I was in middle school. I want people to come and see the musical so they can see where the movie came from.”
Hammonds trained as a modern dancer and actor and even landed the lead role of Tyrone in “Fame.” Coincidentally, it was during that tour in 2005 while performing in Nappanee that he decided to pursue his master’s degree, and soon after started his career in academic administration.
When sending in his audition résumé for “The Color Purple,” Hammonds thought he was asking to be part of the ensemble or a limited role and was shocked to receive a major assignment. He said the play challenges stereotypes and themes he navigates within his PFW position, and part of his motivation is he wants the public to see PFW administrators as executives and community leaders.
“I’ve met so many others that I have not had engagement with, and that’s from high school students to people who work all over the city,” Hammonds said. “I want people to walk away from this show encouraged. It will help us learn, grow, and act together.”
Though she regularly speaks in front of groups, this is the first time Smith has participated in public acting. She talked herself into taking part in the show.
“I read what it was about and thought, `Wow, to be a part of something that delivers a positive message of personal awakening after years of not truly having a voice’ hit home for me,” Smith said. “I feel like I am just discovering who I am, so the message from the musical about the power of being able to discover, heal, and celebrate life is so, so powerful.”