Had it not been for a dearth of racial diversity at Dartmouth in the early 1990s, Marsha Stephanie Blake might never have found her calling. A visiting professor wanted to stage the 1964 James Baldwin play, Blues for Mister Charlie, about race relations in a segregated town, and it required far more Black actors than a typical Dartmouth production. At the urging of friend Zola Mashariki ’94, director of Dartmouth’s Black Underground Theatre Association (BUTA), Blake agreed to join the cast and then went on to act in more student productions.
Because she got “roped into it,” as Blake puts it, appearing in plays felt more like an extracurricular activity than a career possibility, but she soon put her premed plans to rest and reluctantly realized she wanted to act for a living. “Even if I didn’t make much money at it, I wanted to do something that made me happy,” she says. “And I love acting. Playing different people is such an escape for me.”
Seems she made the right decision. “I’m in awe of her talent,” says Rachel Brosnahan, star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “She’s got this magnetic presence that people are drawn to.” Brosnahan first acted with Blake alongside David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in the New York Theatre Workshop staging of Othello in 2016. The actresses are costars again in the upcoming 1970s crime drama I’m Your Woman, which will air on Amazon in December. “She’s the coolest person I know and strong in every sense of the word. As someone who hasn’t been doing this for very long, I’ve looked up to her immensely. She’s always someone I can turn to if I feel unconfident or lost.”
Through the years Blake has shared a stage on Broadway with Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice and acted in hit shows such as Orange is the New Black, This is Us, and How to Get Away with Murder as well as movies such as Luce, in which she plays Octavia Spencer’s mentally ill sister. Blake’s most powerful role to date is in the four-part Netflix series, When They See Us, in which she plays Linda McCray, the mother of one of the “Central Park Five” boys wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape and assault of a jogger in 1989. Her gut-wrenching portrayal of McCray, a mom whose innocent 15-year-old son was sent to prison for six years, earned her a 2019 Best Supporting Actress Emmy nomination.
Blake’s longtime friend, actor David Harbour ’97—no stranger to the red carpet himself—was one of the first to congratulate her. Blake digs up his text message and starts laughing. “Here it is,” she says. “He wrote, ‘Congrats on your first of what I’m sure will be many, many Emmy losses.’ He’s such an ***hole, right?!”
He’s full of admiration, though. “I’ve always rooted for her, so I loved seeing her get that recognition,” says Harbour, who went home empty-handed after the 2017 and 2018 Emmys, when he was nominated for his role as Chief Hopper on Stranger Things. “It really doesn’t matter if you win, but getting that nomination is like being invited into a club of sorts, where the industry acknowledges your work and starts to look at you in a certain way. That’s the most gratifying thing.”
Even though Harbour’s prediction came true, last year was a thrilling one. This year? Not so much. Blake, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, photographer Gregory Costanzo, and their two young daughters, is as eager as anyone to return to a pandemic-free reality. Early on she kept her spirits up by doing what she could to help those on the front lines. When healthcare workers lacked personal protective equipment, Blake, who worked at Dartmouth’s costume shop as a student, dug out her sewing machine to donate about 350 fashionable face masks and headbands. She was often sewing until 3 a.m. and then up early to get them to the post office. It infuriates her to see those refusing to do their part to help curb the spread of Covid-19. “Men and women go to war and have been shot and killed trying to protect this country,” she says. “But you don’t want to wear a mask because it’s uncomfortable? That is not patriotism. That’s being selfish.”
While her fears of putting her family at risk limited her ability to attend many of the demonstrations held across the country after the May 25 killing of George Floyd, Blake is a fierce supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. “If I were single and in my 20s, I would be out there every day,” she says. “Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t know how anyone—no matter what their political beliefs are—can watch a person get killed on the street and be okay with that.”
Shortly after the deadly reality of racial inequality in the United States became a national conversation, a friend of Blake’s from Dartmouth texted her to apologize for getting defensive during a discussion they once had as students. “She said something like, ‘You tried to talk to me about white privilege and I got upset with you because I thought you were calling me a racist. But now I get it, and I’m going to sit down with my kids to have the same conversation,’” Blake says. “That is what we want from everyone. Please, please have the conversation with your kids about what is going on right now.”
She also urges people to watch When They See Us, which earned a total of 16 Emmy nominations and continues to be a top-streamed show, because it tells an important story about racial prejudice. Yes, it’s a tear-jerker, but it’s tissue money well spent. “We knew it was special when we were shooting it, but we didn’t expect all the nominations or that it would have such an effect on so many people,” says Blake. “When we were doing press interviews, a couple of reporters we met with were actually crying. I have never seen a reaction like that.”
It’s no surprise to Mashariki, who recruited Blake to the drama department all those years ago, that her friend is being cast in such high-profile productions now and is earning award nominations. “I wish I could say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen her grow so much since she was at Dartmouth.’ But she was that good then!” says Mashariki, who earned a law degree at Harvard before becoming an exec at Fox Searchlight and BET and now runs her own production company. “When you see her act, so much is happening in a nonverbal way. She is on her game in a way that’s palpable.”
Not everyone in the theater department was as supportive, says Blake. It was common, she says, to hear white students claim that student directors such as Harbour, Zachary Oberzan ’96, and Pavol Liska ’95 were simply trying to be edgy by casting a Black woman.
Not by a longshot, says Harbour, who was in awe of Blake’s talents since seeing her in For Colored Girls, a mainstage production directed by Mashariki that sold out for three nights, and in a play Mashariki wrote that earned Blake an Eleanor Frost prize. “Sorry to all the other actors in the department,” Harbour adds, “but there was no question that Marsha Stephanie was the best actress at that time, bar none.”
He recalls one of his favorite productions with her, when they starred together in Macbeth in the spring of 1995. “She was extraordinary,” says Harbour, who codirected the play with Oberzan. At 6-foot-3, Harbour is a full foot taller than Blake, but she was without a doubt the more menacing of the two. “Part of the fun in that was that I’m such a big dude and she’s so teeny, so it was hilarious watching her push me around. She’s a powerhouse.”
Acting was a welcome escape for Blake, who says being Black at Dartmouth was often difficult. “Even though I was at the top of my class at one of the country’s top high schools, I was overtly told by multiple people, multiple times, that I was only accepted because of affirmative action,” she says. “You end up feeling, no matter how hard you worked to get there, that you don’t belong.”
Born in Jamaica, Blake’s move to the United States came only as a result of a huge sacrifice her family made. When Blake was 5, her mother said a tearful goodbye to her husband and their four children and left for New York City. She worked as an undocumented nanny until she could apply for a green card. Her employers agreed to sponsor her, and then helped her legally bring her family over. But it took five years. “We sent photos and letters back and forth, and we got to call her once in a while, but I didn’t see my mom that whole time,” says Blake.
The American dream ended up being a tougher challenge than her parents anticipated. Blake’s father was a scientist with a prominent position at the Jamaica Ministry of Agriculture. When he arrived in the United States, he was able to find work only as a taxi driver and a security guard. Blake’s mother continued to work in childcare and then at an assisted living home. Her parents had hopes for a better life in America, but they sometimes questioned whether they should have left Jamaica. Her father, who died of cancer in January, “never did feel at home here, and he ended up moving back about a decade ago,” says Blake. “But I think he died knowing he did everything he could for his children.”
As a student at Brooklyn Tech, a highly selective magnet school in New York City, Blake was dedicated to achieving top grades. While many of her classmates had tutors and took expensive SAT prep courses, Blake’s only help came from photocopies of pages from her friends’ Kaplan books. Some kids even had parents with enough money to cheat the system. “There were definitely people I was friends with whose parents were trying to pay someone to take the test for them,” says Blake. “I just thought, ‘Oh well, you can afford to do it that way, and I’m just going to do it by studying my ass off.’ ”
Once she arrived in Hanover the reality of income disparity began to sting a little more. “When everyone is flying home for holidays and you’re stuck in your dorm because you don’t have the money to go anywhere, you ask yourself, ‘Am I in the right place? Everyone seems to have such a different life than me,’ ” says Blake, who worked at Traditionally Trendy, a Dartmouth apparel shop on Main Street. “But I realize now that there were probably a lot of us who felt that way, and maybe if we had just talked about it more, we’d feel just as entitled to be there ourselves.”
After graduating Blake moved to New York City and worked as an office temp to support herself while trying to break into the theater world. In 1997 she joined Harbour and Aliza Waksal ’96 and a few other actors to form the Little Eyases Ensemble. When the group, which performed small, off-off Broadway productions, disbanded, Blake went to the University of California San Diego to earn an M.F.A. Parts were easier to come by when she returned to N.Y.C. She booked some off-Broadway plays and episodes of TV shows such as Third Watch and Law & Order. Then in 2010 she was cast as Nerissa in the Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice. And who ended up playing the role of Bassanio? Harbour, whom she hadn’t seen in about 10 years. “I showed up to rehearsal and I was like, ‘Marsha?!’ ” says Harbour. “It was a total coincidence and such a great experience because it was at a time when both of our careers were starting to get a lot better.”
Since then the two actors have remained close and hope to work together again soon. “There are some projects I’m developing, and I’m always thinking, ‘Is there a way that Marsha and I could do this together?’ She’s such a unique talent and a kindred spirit who loves creating art as much as I do. She also genuinely cares about me in a way I don’t even deserve,” says Harbour.
For now, both are simply waiting for life to get back to something resembling normal. Since March, when Covid-19 pushed the pause button on Hollywood, nothing much is being produced, and many films, including Harbour’s much-anticipated Black Widow, are in release limbo.
There are some innovative writers and producers sparking creative hope by telling stories in nontraditional ways, though. Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan asked Blake to perform in a quarantine-themed anthology series hitting Netflix this fall called, fittingly, Social Distance. It gave her a chance to act with one of her children, an aspiring actor herself. And with no crew on hand, she also got to learn a few new skills. “They dropped off lighting and sound equipment and then the whole team—writer, creator, director, hair and makeup people—all got on Zoom with me to set everything up and shoot it,” says Blake. “It was kind of crazy, but I think it worked!”