Get to Know Shawn Whitsell

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

Shawn Whitsell is, among many things, an educator, actor, director, playwright, and administrator out of Nashville, Tennessee. He works with and supports a myriad of local organizations that offer arts training, education, and services to those in need and provides a platform for many local artists with his Focused Dreams Films production company and professional theatre venture, Destiny Theatre Experience. Read below to find out more about Shawn!

MONUMENT: Let's begin as always with the classic introduction - what’s your favorite color?

SHAWN WHITSELL: It changes from time to time but there is something about gold that has always resonated deeply with me. 

M: Favorite food?

SW: Crab legs. 

M: Favorite article of clothing?

SW: Right now, it's my "Hella Black, Hella Proud" jacket.

M: We must know the origins of such a jacket.

SW: I remember adoring the dashikis I occasionally saw on TV as a kid and wanting to have one so badly. To me, they represented Black pride, love, beauty, strength and resistance. I never owned one as a kid but I have a collection of them now. A few years ago, I created an event called Dashikis & Daiquiris. Attendees come dressed in dashikis and other African apparel to celebrate the culture. My friends and I also have Afro Punk-themed parties. I love expressing myself through clothing. I have a number of t-shirts, hats, hoodies and pins with affirming statements on them. Most of them are a celebration of Blackness. About five years ago, I came across this brother named Ron Green out of Philly who was selling these really dope hoodies with "What's Up African" on them. I bought one and I never stopped buying his products. I've watched his brand, Tribe Worldwide Apparel, grow tremendously over the years. I bought a "Hella Black Hella Proud" t-shirt from him a few years back and when the jacket came out a couple of years after that, I had to have it as well. I have a hoodie that has "Free Black Man" on it that I wear often. It's a different brand. I love that I can make statements without even saying a word. I plan to start my own brand of tees, hats and hoodies one day. 

M: Do you have any tattoos? If so, is there a favorite?

SW: I have two. One is a red, black, green and gold tattoo of Africa with a fist in the middle, on my chest. On my right arm, there are kanji symbols for "destiny" and "soulmate." When my daughter Destiny was about six, she heard me say the word "soulmate" and asked what it was. I told her it was two people who were meant to be together forever. She said, "Oh, like you and me?" I replied, "Yes, baby, like you and me." It was the sweetest moment. Shortly after, I got "Destiny's Soulmate" in kanji symbols on my arm. It was my first and will always be my favorite.

M: Well that is just adorable. And sweet. And perfect. Ok! Favorite weather or time of year?

SW: Summer. 

M: Are you a sports fan?

SW: I'm not a sports fanatic but I enjoy watching. My favorites are basketball and track & field. 

M: Track and field? Interesting choice. Coffee or tea?

SW: I love them both but I rely on coffee a lot when I'm studying or writing scripts. 

M: Cat or dog?

SW: Though I love animals, I'm not much of a pet person. I enjoy playing with dogs but I'm too busy to have one of my own. It wouldn't be fair. I find cats hilarious and love to watch videos of the funny and feisty things they do. 

M: If you had to guess, what's your spirit animal?

SW: I was thinking of an actual animal and then remembered hearing people refer to other people as their spirit animal so I'm going to go that route and say Lenny Kravitz. 

M: Keeping us on our toes. Ok then, what are some hobbies or interests of yours we might not know about?

SW: I am an absolute bookworm. I love reading, writing, volunteering, community service, activism and bringing people together for cultural experiences. 

M: What do you do to relax?

SW: Read, watch a good series or documentary. 

M: Dream Vacation?

SW: I've done the tropical island thing and I love that. However, my dream is to visit Africa. As a descendant of the continent, I would like to stand on the soil, breathe in the air and touch the people. I know it will be a powerful spiritual experience when it finally happens.

M: Do you have a favorite author or poet?

SW: It's hard to pick a favorite but Toni Morrison is one of them. 

M: An excellent choice. What are some of her works you most connect with?

SW: I will admit that I haven't read as much of Toni Morrison's work as I would have liked at this point, but I will get there. I have a few of her books on my shelf, waiting on me to say when. So far, the two that I've connected with most are "The Bluest Eye" and "Beloved." They deal with those really dark realities that I am often so drawn to in art.

M: Do you have a favorite actor?

SW: Jeffrey Wright. He's incredible. 

M: Who is a hero or inspiration of yours?

SW: My mother, Wanda Whitsell Thompson, is love in action. The ways in which she gives tirelessly to her family, church and community is amazing to see. I admire her commitment to humanity. 

M: On that note, what do you admire in people?

SW: I love kindness, boldness and humility. 

M: What do you despise in people?

SW: I despise when people spew hate toward other people. However, I do believe that hatred can be combated with love, knowledge and proximity so there's hope for everyone to be better. 

M: What charms you in a person?

SW: Niceness. 

M: Where are you from?

SW: I am from Madisonville, KY, "the best town on Earth."

M: When did you develop an interest in theatre? 

SW: I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't want to be on stage. I was always performing. When it comes to theater specifically, I would say, third grade. 

M: What happened in the third grade?

SW: When I was in the 3rd grade, I was in a play and an actor with a bigger role got sick or injured and it was uncertain if he'd return to school before the play opened. I overheard two teachers discussing what to do and their plan was to give me his role. I already had one of the larger roles in the play and my lines were already memorized. However, they believed if anyone could handle this challenge, it would be me, out of all the other males in the whole 3rd grade. The way they talked about me gave me an extra boost of confidence. The other kid ended up being able to come back so I didn't have to do his role but to know how much my teachers believed in my ability was empowering. It has stuck with me all these years. I never revealed to them that I'd overheard them whispering about me. I can't say that was the exact time I knew I wanted to do this professionally but it was a milestone moment that affirmed that I had what it took to be successful.

M: When did you decide you would pursue it professionally?

SW: When I was in elementary school, I dreamed of being on stages and TV with thousands of people watching. I didn't know all the ins and outs of the business but I always felt destined to be in front of an audience. My plan was to take the money I made to help the less fortunate. 

M: You studied sociology at Middle Tennessee State. Can you talk about the role that plays in your craft?

SW: Absolutely. Sociology is the study of human relationships, interaction, beliefs, systems and society. Studying sociology definitely informs the questions I ask when building a character, whether I'm writing or acting. As a sociology major, I had to do a great deal of research, which is a skill also needed for writing, acting and directing. I look at every script as a class or case study. My goal is to dive deep and get as much out of it as I can so I can pass it on to the audience through my character and performance. It's also going to make me a better, more informed person and I can take what I've learned from one script or experience and apply it to my next project or just life in general.

M: What are the kinds of stories you gravitate to?

SW: I'm often attracted to dark, heavy subject matter. I think it's important to reflect the difficult realities that people face in our world in order to facilitate awareness, healing and justice. 

M: What is it about these stories that resonates with you?

SW: I like material that's honest and gives voice to the marginalized. I believe people can find hope and inspiration in the truth. 

M: What is the effect you want your work to have on the audience?

SW: I want people to feel. I want them to leave better than they came. Whether they are more informed, or more empathetic, or they are motivated to get involved with a cause or they have a much-needed laugh or cry, I want people to be elevated in some way.