Actor and Educator | Class of 2018
Brent Jennings, an accomplished actor and educator, was born in 1951 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Enlow and Loretta Jennings, a V.A. medical assistant and an educator, respectively. Educated in Little Rock public schools and a 1969 graduate of the historic Little Rock Central High School, Jennings was introduced to what would become his life’s work in the sixth grade at Rightsell Elementary School as his potential was recognized by a teacher he only remembers as Mrs. Robinson when he performed in the school’s annual Rightsell Follies, a Vaudeville-style revue. She had been the director, and she encouraged and motivated him to seriously consider acting, saying he possessed all the qualities and characteristics of a true thespian. He took his first acting classes at the Arkansas Arts Center, which led to his being the first African-American actor to land the lead role in a children’s theater production there when as a high school senior he played the part of Toad in the A.A. Milne classic “Toad of Toad Hill.”
Jennings interest in the Black Arts Movement in New York City took him to the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times where he followed the careers and works of major writers, particularly those who were giving artistic voice to the Civil Rights Movement: Ed Bullins, Charles Gordone, Paul Carter Jones, and Adrienne Kennedy to name a few. He also learned of various theaters, such as The Negro Ensemble Company, New Lafayette Theater, and New York Shakespeare Festival. Upon being awarded an internship with the Magic Circle Children’s Theater at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts, he was accepted into Emerson College, a four-year liberal arts college, where as a sophomore he met an acting instructor, the late James Spruill, who became his mentor. Through his association with Spruill and Spruill’s New African Company, along with the Theater Company of Boston, he was blessed to work alongside the famed Al Pacino and the late Paul Benedict, and other such noteworthy actors from the Actor’s Studio. While still an undergrad, his work with Pacino availed him membership in the Actors Equity Association.
Also while at Emerson, he developed an allegiance with other African-American students and formed The Wuhabi Theater Group that toured other campuses throughout New England. They even partnered with local theater companies to introduce theater workshops to the Massachusetts state prison system.
Jennings received awards for acting and directing during his time at Emerson, including prestigious Carol Burnett Award and the New England Theater Award. He graduated from Emerson with a dual major in acting and communications in 1974. He served an internship in Connecticut under the late Lloyd Richards, the renowned African-American director of the original play A Raisin in the Sun. Once Jennings made it to New York City, he spent the next five years as a stage actor, appearing in many of New York’s most prestigious off-Broadway playhouses. He finally made it to Broadway to act alongside Morgan Freeman among others, although during this time he was supported mostly by the communications skills acquired at Emerson.
Jennings’ film debut came when he landed a role in the movie Brubaker about an Arkansas prison, starring Robert Redford and Yaphet Kotto. His next five years in New York took him to both national stages and to the silver screen. His time in New York culminated with his role as Pvt. Tony Smalls in the Pulitzer Prize winning play A Soldier’s Play, with Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. A role alongside Harrison Ford transfixed him from New York to Los Angeles where Jennings quickly established himself as a very versatile character actor. He has received countless awards and recognitions for his cache of work with such renowned actors as Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cicely Tyson, Bernie Mac, and Brad Pitt to name a few. He has appeared in more than seventy episodes of network television and in more than twenty national television commercials.
Jennings spent twelve years as an adjunct faculty member at the American Academy of Dramatics in Los Angeles where he directed more than twenty plays. During this time, he was also a Visiting Murphy Scholar at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, allowing him to spend time with his brother, the late Dr. James M. Jennings, then chairman of the Education Department and professor of African-American history.
Jennings and his actress wife, Juanita Jennings, live in Los Angeles. They have two sons. He, along with his brother, Lemuel, frequently travel home to attend to the care of his centenarian mother.