As one of a very few deaf actors working in the United States, still fewer of whom are African American, Michelle Banks has been a true pioneer. For some years, Banks has created roles for herself as founder and artistic director of Onyx Theater Company, the first deaf theater in the United States oriented toward people of color. In the early 2000s, Banks expanded beyond audiences for deaf theater productions with several key film and television roles. Banks has taken a condition that would form a serious obstacle for most performers and turned it into an opportunity. "I never felt I missed out on things. If anything," she told Essence, her deafness "has made me more resilient against the dual discrimination deaf people of color face."
A native of Washington, D.C., Michelle Banks was born around 1968. She had one older brother. Born with normal hearing, Banks went deaf at age one after a bout with spinal meningitis. Her parents quickly realized what was happening and enrolled in classes in American Sign Language so that they would be able to communicate with their daughter and remain involved in her education. Banks was fortunate to be living in Washington, D.C., for the city's Gallaudet University—a nationally prominent institute of higher education for the deaf—operated elementary and secondary schools on its campus. Banks attended the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School at Gallaudet.
When Banks was seven, she and her family saw the film Sounder, starring Cicely Tyson. "I told my mother I wanted to be just like that woman," Banks told Essence. "She was like, 'Well, she is an actress. I was like, 'Okay, that's what I'll be, then.'" At Gallaudet's Model Secondary School for the Deaf, school director Tim McCarthy encouraged her to pursue her interest in theater. Banks enrolled at Gallaudet itself and also took classes from the National Theatre of the Deaf, but in 1987 she transferred to the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase, in Westchester County, just north of New York City. "I was looking for a challenge, and I knew that New York was a better place for theatre, so I went to study drama at SUNY Purchase," she explained to Ken Kurlychek of World Around You. "I was the first deaf student there."
Her college experience involved trailblazing and a good deal of loneliness, although she made some friends among students who knew some sign language or its more rudimentary relative, finger spelling. Banks had to fight for the opportunity to have a sign-language interpreter placed with her in classes. By the time she graduated in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in drama studies, Banks had realized how few opportunities there were for an actress like her. So, during her senior year, she took the unusual step for an undergraduate of forming her own theater company. She called it the Onyx Theater Company because, she explained to Kurlychek, "Onyx is a black stone—the black represents people of color, and the stone represents deafness."
The company consisted of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing actors who presented, Banks, told Kurlychek, "productions based on our life experiences and how we view society." Performances were in American Sign Language and English, with each set of actors inter-preting for the other. The plays produced often centered on deafness and race; in the late 1990s Onyx seasons included the Raymond Luczak play Fatherland, dealing with a deaf politician running for the U.S. Congress, and A Not So Quiet Nocturne, by Jaye Austin-Williams, in which Banks played a pregnant deaf woman who is infected with the HIV virus by her drug-abuser husband. As a result of her work with Onyx, Banks received the Cultural Enrichment Award from Gallaudet and the Distinguished Service Award from New York Deaf Theatre.
After a bit part in Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), Banks starred in 1999 in the independent film Compensation, directed by Zeinabu Irene Davis. Alternating in its setting between the Chicago of a century ago and that of the present time, the film depicted two pairs of lovers, each consisting of a deaf woman and a man with unimpaired hearing. After its premiere in Chicago, the film was shown at some two dozen film festivals over the next two years, including the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in September of 1999 and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah the following January. Compensation reached festival screens as far afield as Italy, the Netherlands, and the African nation of Burkina Faso, and it won several awards.
With this success under her belt, Banks moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2001. She made ends meet by working as an American Sign Language interpreter. At the 2002 Media Access Award ceremony, she received the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship Banks used the proceeds of this award to finance an expansion of her one-woman show, Reflections of a Black Deaf Woman. First performed at the Black Arts Festival in Detroit in 1996, the show appeared at various other venues around the United States, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, before its extended run in Los Angeles in 2003. The show, presented in American Sign Language, deals with the relationship between a deaf mother and daughter (both played by Banks). Banks has indicated that the show is not autobiographical (her mother had normal hearing) but is based on the life experiences of other African-American deaf women.
The exposure in Los Angeles led Banks to other theatrical opportunities. She was seen in a sold-out Los Angeles production of the Broadway musical Big River (based on the Mark Twain novel Huckleberry Finn) in 2001, and in 2002 she appeared in a unique staging at Hollywood's Globe Playhouse of the African-American theater classic for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, featuring a pair of actresses, one hearing and one deaf and signing the words, playing each of the play's seven roles. Banks, noted Back Stage West reviewer J.A. Eliason, "brings … passion and a vulnerable touch" to the role of the lady in red. "Not only specific and present, Banks is gorgeous. She radiates agony in the final piece as Boon [her speaking counterpart] drives the story home with forceful mastery."
It was also in the year 2002 that Banks began to break through into television roles. She had a recurring role on the UPN network television series Girlfriends as the deaf boss of central character Lynn, and she appeared in a guest-starring role in the Lifetime cable channel's Strong Medicine. Banks also had roles in 10-8 on ABC and Soul Food on Showtime. The Soul Food role came about due to Banks's personal initiative; she discussed the idea of creating a deaf character for the show with series producer Sheila Duckworth. By the mid-2000s Banks also had a national television commercial for the Yahoo website under her belt. She was continuing to perform Reflections of a Black Deaf Woman and had added a personal-appearance offering, "An Afternoon/Evening with Michelle Banks," to her repertoire of public events.
At a Glance …
Career: Onyx Theater Company, founder and director, 1989–; film actress, 1992–; television actress, 2002–.
Memberships: National Black Deaf Advocates; Los Angeles Black Deaf Association (cultural director).
Awards: Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship, 2002; Gallaudet University, Cultural Enrichment Award; New York Deaf Theatre, Distinguished Service Award.
Addresses: Home—Los Angeles, CA. Web—www.michellebanks.com.
Television (various episodes)
Soul Food, 2002.
10-8: Officers on Duty, 2003.
Big River, 2001.
for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, 2002.
Reflections of a Black Deaf Woman (one-woman show), 1996–.
Back Stage West, June 6, 2002, p. 17.
Essence, February 1998, p. 68.
Los Angeles Sentinel, May 29, 2003, p. B4.
New York Beacon, May 21, 1997, p. 25.
"Bio," Michelle Banks, www.michellebanks.com (February 1, 2007).
"Deaf Actress Lights Up Stage and Screen," World Around You (Gallaudet University), http://clerccenter.gallaudet.edu/WorldAroundYou/mar-apr98/banks.html (February 1, 2007).
"Michelle A. Banks," Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com/name/nm0052216 (February 1, 2007).
"NDBA Member Michelle Banks Takes On Hollywood," National Black Deaf Advocates, www.ndba.org/spotlights/spotlight_archive/spotlight_banks.html (February 1, 2007).