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Arts & Culture
Each Thursday, WFAE checks in with a local arts and entertainment reporter about things to do in Charlotte during the upcoming weekend.

Gastonia native Maria Howell talks about a career of acting and music before Charlotte show

Gastonia native Maria Howell has wowed audiences with her amazing voice around the country and internationally and she’s shared the stage with greats such as Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson and George Benson. Now, her vocal talents are well known, but her acting abilities are less known. Howell has had television roles in series such as "Army Wives," "Criminal Minds" and locally filmed "Delilah." She’s landed parts in movies, including "The Blind Side," "Hunger Games" and "Hidden Figures."

On this edition of Weekend in Entertainment, WFAE's Gwendolyn Glenn talks to Howell about her career.

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Maria Howell

Maria Howell: ... "The Color Purple" was my very first professional acting job. It was one of those pivotal projects where I could go toward singing or go toward acting. I did my best to do both. But right after "The Color Purple," it took five more years for me to start acting. That was a conscious decision. It was very intentional because I always wanted to be a singer first. And I was offered a position in Charlotte, North Carolina, at Jonathan's Jazz Cellar to sing full time, so I personally put the acting on hold. I would get approached about acting jobs, so I got an agent and started taking classes. I started doing commercials, but my second acting job was actually a TV show called "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," and that was with George Lucas. I played the role of someone named Goldie. Guess what? A singer.

Gwendolyn Glenn: And you said you went to act. Where did you study acting?

Howell: I studied at Central Piedmont (Community College) because I wasn't in the drama club in high school or college. I'm a pre-med major. So, with the Winston-Salem Little Theater, I studied under some teachers there, so I would always do private coaching.

Glenn: OK. And when did you decide that you liked it and wanted to pursue it just as hard as you were pursuing your singing?

Howell: When I was validated, and they started paying me for it. You know, I always felt like, "You're not good enough, Maria, because you don't have the degree." I think that when I kept getting offers to audition and I had an agent, I just dug down in it. I'm like, "I'm going to be the best I can be with what I'm doing."

Glenn: What was your first role where you didn't have to sing?

Howell: I don't remember what the project was, but I do remember feeling like, "Thank you. At least people can see I can do something else. I can just straight act instead of being that type cast, stereotypical singer."

Glenn: How did you land a role on "Army Wives?" And tell us, who did you play?

Howell: I auditioned for that show, I think about five times before I ever landed a role. Maj. Barcenilla, I think that was my name. The main character, when he was getting promoted, I was the one that presented him with his promotion. It was one of those roles that's, like, authoritative, and a lot of my roles do fall into that realm.

Glenn: And that was a one-episode deal?

Howell: That was one episode. It was a guest star role.

Glenn: Now, will tell me, "Hunger Games": That's a movie — a series of movies — that people just flocked to in droves. And how did you get that role? And tell us about the role.

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Howell: Well, that role I played the part of Seeder. Seeder was almost like a mentor to Katniss (the protagonist), and "Hunger Games" was the entrance into what a really big budget film means and looks like because there were a lot of special effects.

Glenn: OK, "Hidden Figures." Tell us about that, how that came about in your character in that.

Howell: Well, I play a teacher. In that opening scene when you see the principal and a teacher talking to Dorothy's parents... That was a nice little roll for me because the acting and the voiceover.

Glenn: "Hidden Figures," of course, is a movie about female genius mathematicians who went on to work at NASA and contributed a lot to the space program that people never heard about. What did it mean to you to be a part of that movie?

Howell: It was monumental. I felt like I'm part of a history that will hopefully influence people. I hope that "Hidden Figures" will be a movie like "The Color Purple" in the sense of it becomes part of the curriculum.

Glenn: Well, let's go to a more recent role you are playing in another favorite of mine, "The Resident." And with Malcolm Jamal-Warner and just a great cast, I think, great writing. And there you are. Tell us about that.

Howell: That was a sweet role. I enjoyed that, and I'm hoping that they call me back. And me being a pre-med major, I have played many doctors, many nurses, and so that makes me feel like I didn't waste my degree. I played, actually, a judge. And my father was a musician. And so I was there because they helped my father, I was able to help them in some way. I won't give a spoiler alert for those who haven't seen it.

Glenn: So, what are you working on now?

Howell: Got a couple of things that are on television. I'll say that. The other things are singing. But one of the most fun things... I love cartoons. I watch cartoons every day. And Ellen DeGeneres has a cartoon called "Little Ellen," which is on HBO Max, and I play a recurring role, Tallulah — Tallulah of Tallulah's Beignets. And that's already on HBO Max. On BET+, it's called "Sacrifice." I play the serious diva. I channeled Dominique Deveraux from "Dynasty" for my role — Diahann Carroll. I channeled her, and I play Richard Roundtree's daughter and Paula Patton's aunt.

Glenn: You are very busy.

Howell: Blessed.

Glenn: Great, and you do a lot of your auditions in nearby Concord, right?

Howell: Yeah, everything's set up at the house and doing the voiceover jobs and auditions, what have you.

Howell will be at Middle C Jazz in Charlotte Nov. 12-14 for its second anniversary celebration and at the Booth Theatre in Charlotte on Nov. 30 with Noel Friedline for their annual Christmas Show.

In the meantime, here are some other events this weekend:

  • Kings of Soul showcases the music of legendary artists such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown, The Temptations and Curtis Mayfield at Knight Theater Friday at 7:30 p.m., conducted by Christopher James Lees.
  • The Stargazer Music Festival, with hip-hop, electronic and contemporary classical music is Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Green Life Family Farm in Concord.
  • Saturday at noon, the Unplugged live concert is at the Eastway rec center.
  • The Southern Christmas Show kicked off Thursday at the Park Expo Conference Center and goes through Nov. 21.
  • "Peter and the Wolf," based on the classic Russian folk tale, is Saturday at 11 a.m. at Knight Theatre.

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