Amid Racial Tension, an Actor Finds His Voice Changing high schools can be a big blow for a teenager, but Ricardo Pitts-Wiley also had to deal with the racial backlash of desegregation in 1960s Michigan. Then he found his professional calling and peace in an unexpected place: a Shakespeare play.

Amid Racial Tension, an Actor Finds His Voice

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It's Friday morning, which means it's time again for StoryCorps. This project records everyday people telling their own stories.

And today Ricardo Pitts-Wiley tells his. He was a teenager in Michigan when he started at a new school. It was 1968. Ricardo recently came to a StoryCorps booth with his son to explain how the experience shaped the rest of his life.

Mr. RICARDO PITTS-WILEY: I got bussed to a high school in my sophomore year from a school where there was a large African-American black population to a school that we were 2 percent of the population. And it was awful, just awful, getting bussed. Even though I always thought I had intelligence, I never felt like I wanted to even try to use it there. So I did just enough to get by.

In my junior year, our teacher there, Bob Price(ph), put me in a play, "Romeo and Juliet." And I was the only black kid in the play, and I caught hell. I caught hell from the white kids at this school and I caught hell from the black kids. And in some ways, it forced me, caused me to distance myself from both of them. Neither one of them were willing to support what I wanted, so I became kind of single-minded in that respect.

And opening night, I came on the stage with this kind of fake beard and this big, floppy mushroom hat made out of upholstery fabric that the director's wife have made and everybody burst in laughter.

And what could have been a crushing moment in my life really was just something different. I, you know, I just said, no, I'm not going to give in. And I had this little squeaky voice, and I just kind of dug in and I just begged for this voice, the spirit of Brock Peters, who was, you know, who was very much alive at that time, but I always loved his voice, Brock Peters. All those muscles and everything, you know, he was like a black man with big voice and muscles and bad, you know, "Porgy and Bess," all that stuff. And I said, I need that voice, Brock. And he sent it to me.

And a voice came out. And I was the prince. Not a big part, but I was the prince. And after that opening scene when I walked offstage, I said, that's it, this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.

INSKEEP: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley has worked on and around the stage now for more than three decades. He came with his son, Jonathan, to Story Corps in Providence, Rhode Island. That interview will be archived along with all Story Corps interviews in the Library of Congress. And you can subscribe to this project's podcast at

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