(Featured image courtesy of Chris Millsapp)
Warning: This interview may include spoilers for season four of Black Lightning.
One of the most successful comic-inspired franchises this side of Wakanda can be found in the CW’s Arrowverse. Drawing from decades of DC Comics lore, the TV universe began with Arrow, a gritty drama that proved that dark comic properties could thrive on the small screen. In the near-decade since that first premiere, iconic figures like Superman, The Flash, and Supergirl have led their own series, teaming up in ambitious crossovers like “Crisis on Infinite Earths” that have attracted millions of viewers across half a dozen shows. One of the Arrowverse’s buzziest programs has been Black Lightning, centered around the first African American hero to lead a DC Comics series in the seventies. In the currently airing final season of the action-adventure series, Wallace Smith has joined the cast as Detective Hassan Shakur, a man with past connections to Black Lightning who is now seeking his help.
TV Wasteland had the opportunity to speak with rising star Wallace Smith about his place in the world of Black Lightning, the value of live theater in a pandemic world, and the other artistic endeavors he’s pursued over the past year.
Smith started his artistic journey in the eighties, namely with the iconic Gremlins, the first movie he ever remembers watching. “My imagination from the jump was really big because I was raised seeing a lot of really cool movies,” especially futuristic and fantastical films like Back to the Future and E.T. where not even the stars were the limit in terms of sheer imagination. “It wasn’t until I got into high school that I got an opportunity to put a lot of those skills and a lot of that interest to work,” but as soon as he got involved in those theater programs, he began to exercise all of that ability as much as he could.
Wallace first auditioned for The Lion King’s stage production at twenty years old. Though he didn’t book a part at that point, he recalls being “put on file,” and it wasn’t until four years later that he was contacted about being put in the show. Just further proving how quickly things can move in the theater industry, he was promoted from ensemble to the lead role of adult Simba after just a few months. The next three years were a whirlwind of touring, and Smith remembers how performing in countless major theaters across the world became his college experience, feeling “like some of the most amazing training you can get, being a part of a big production like that… One of a kind, you’ll never see anything like it.”
Smith would eventually take the role of adult Simba all the way to Broadway, where he spent the following years in leading parts in shows like Hair and American Idiot and originating roles in Godspell and Rocky. In 2015, he took on the part of Enjolras in the classic Les Misérables, where he caught the eye of a writer with a script about a Founding Father in his back pocket: Lin-Manuel Miranda. The writer was a huge fan of the legendary show’s revival, so “when I had an audition for Hamilton… he gave me compliments on being in Les Mis, and the next thing I know, I’m in the original company in Chicago.” For two years, he brought the stories of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison to audiences in Illinois as Okieriete Onaodowan did the same on the East Coast. The show eventually broke the city’s theatrical box office record with millions of people in attendance, including thousands of students who were able to see the show through the Hamilton Education Program. “Being a part of that first original group to take the show somewhere other than New York was a true honor, and then to be asked to come back to New York and perform the same role… on Broadway, it was incredible.” Smith emphasized how special it was to be able to perform for audiences in two different cities that were so excited about theater in general and the show in particular. “Hamilton has been life-changing.”
As the world arrives at a full year without theater, an abundance of chatter has centered around what the value of live performance is in a world where so much visual storytelling is available at your fingertips, anywhere at any time. For Wallace, “there’s something that you get from live theater that you’ll never be able to get just watching something on a screen.” There’s something alchemical in the connection between an actor and an audience in a shared physical space. As an artist who’s built a career through forming those connections, Smith knows that “there’s a transfer; there’s a dance you do with the audience” that just can’t be replicated through a screen. And for Wallace, it’s not just about the loss of entertainment, but rather the loss of education. “Young people need the art. It’s one thing to have young people in the house watching cartoons and TV. It’s another thing when they can have the experience of… seeing people do it in real time.” It’s what inspired Smith and countless other actors to follow the path of their true dreams, and an entire new generation of performers is missing out on the catalysts for their own journeys. “If you take live performance out of the equation, there’s a huge void in the industry, and I think everybody’s feeling that right now.”
“New York City is really nice to me.” Big Apple-based casting directors for film and television have always looked for up-and-coming talent in the theater scene, so Wallace was one of many who would be called “straight into producer sessions” for co-starring and guest starring roles in series that would be filming just a few blocks away. However, Smith wasn’t just waiting for parts to fall into his lap. “I was doing a lot of recon. I was really trying to figure out how to be good at this.” One role that really stuck out to him came in “Framed,” an episode of Blue Bloods, in which he played a cop who busted star Danny Reagan (Donnie Wahlberg) for drug possession. “I felt so cool, because I was an integral part of that episode,” shooting for two entire weeks on the main set and working closely with the stars of the show.
After years of hard work, he’s landed a strong recurring role that he feels truly excited about in Black Lightning. Over the past three years, Cress Williams has portrayed protagonist Jefferson Pierce, also known as Black Lightning, a retired superhero turned educator who jumps back into the vigilante game when his family is put in danger. During his previous time as the masked crimefighter, Jefferson had inspired a young boy named Hassan to return to school and turn his life around. Decades later, in the events of the current season, Pierce once again encounters the boy, who is now Detective Shakur of the Freeland Police Department. Shakur “exists because of the death of Chief Henderson in season three… He was a protege of the former chief, and so he’s come back to Freeland to find Black Lightning, to ask him where he’s been. Did he have anything to do with his mentor dying?” These questions and investigations send the detective down a rabbit hole of uncovering the truth about Freeland, the police department, and the metahumans. While still being careful to avoid spoilers, Wallace teased how “people will see the relationship between Detective Shakur and Black Lightning develop.”
Having watched Cress Williams for years growing up, Smith praised the lead for being “a well of good vibes and advice. We have really cool, organic conversations about the business” because of a shared Los Angeles background and a love for the theater. “My good friend [Melissa De Sousa] who plays my boss on the show, Chief Lopez, is incredible… To have her by my side has been really great as well.” One aspect that’s really set the Black Lightning experience apart from every other project he’s worked on has been the fanbase. Having grown up as a fan of Warner Bros. characters himself, he feels that “DC Comics, it doesn’t get any better than that… To be a part of something like that in any capacity is a true honor.”
Even as he begins to explore non-musical avenues within the industry, Smith emphasized, “Singing is my foundation.” As a teenager, it became a hobby for him and his friends to meet after school to “make a beat” and come up with songs on the spot about how they were feeling at the time. Over the years, that casual freewriting began to solidify into something more formal. “I was able to grow in music production and do a lot of my own tracks and music, and R&B has always been a huge part of my life.” His most recent album, West Side, was created and released in just the first few months of quarantine, when all the time at home really allowed his creativity to run wild. “At the beginning of the pandemic… it was like this huge feeling of paralysis.” Artists had no clue where anything was headed in a world where collaboration was difficult and gathering an audience was nearly impossible. “Feeling like you were kind of helpless there for a few months… it kind of made everybody sit down and take mental and emotional inventory of where they had been and where they wanted to go.” It wasn’t until June of last year that it dawned on Wallace that the world was settling in for the long haul with the virus, and “that’s when I sort of mentally started going to different places and started to create.” Now, he believes that we’re going to see “some of the best material we’ve ever seen” be released, because every artist was forced to turn their focus inwards and be truly introspective. He highlighted the songs and stories that have been created due to the heightened awareness of social injustice in the past year. Look no further than the Grammys earlier this month, where R&B artist H.E.R. won Song of the Year for her social justice anthem “I Can’t Breathe.” “Though it started out hard, I think it’s yielded a lot of amazing fruit.”
Before the pandemic, Wallace picked up a camera because “I felt like my life was kind of getting away from me.” In the hectic fast-paced world of New York City, he wanted to find a way to slow it all down, and he thought, “What better way than to capture the moments?” He didn’t know that he was going to truly fall in love with photography, and later on a friend was talking to him about how “everything starts from the mud.” At that moment, his company From the Mud was born, an organization focused around capturing those forms of beginning and growth in people and places. “You put a seed in the ground, and it grows… Everything that we see in pictures, they all have a beginning.”
Smith believes that there’s a certain foundational work ethic that comes with musical theater. “At my core, I’m just an actor who sings.” He’s excited about his shift to television because it’s providing him with the opportunity to focus on his acting, “to dive back into the principles that make an actor who they are.” His time on Black Lightning has allowed him to dive deep into subtext and character development, which is of course still present in musical theater, but he joked that this time he doesn’t have to juggle it with the extra task of performing a song to go along with it. His time on Black Lightning has been extremely special to him for the chance to “get back to the basics, why we do what we do.” After many years on the stage, he wants to hang up his theater boots to get more experience on screen as well as return to the studio to develop more music and put out another album, “just to keep the art going… As long as everything keeps moving, that’s all that I can really hope for.”
We’re sure that the Arrowverse is just the beginning for Wallace Smith on our TVs, and whether we see him on the big screen, onstage, or in our Spotify playlists next, you can be sure he’ll always find those roots of new beginnings in every piece of art he works on. Black Lightning is currently airing on Mondays on the CW, and his most recent album West Side is available wherever you buy or stream music right now.