- Durham Public Schools
DPS Notable Kevin Wilson | Chasing Success: A Beautiful Journey
To many, Hillside High School graduate Kevin Wilson, Jr., has seemingly reached a pinnacle–or at least checked off a professional and personal best. A short film that he wrote, produced, and directed was nominated for an Oscar at the 90th Academy Awards. Wilson billed it My Nephew Emmett, writing the script from the point of view of Emmett Till’s uncle, at whose home the 14-year-old was staying for the summer and from which he was abducted. The 19-minute film has been lauded and screened at national film festivals. Despite having been recognized globally for his cinematic talent, Wilson says he is still chasing the success that he said his theater mentor, retired Hillside High School drama director Wendell Tabb, personified.
The 2007 Hillside graduate’s theater experience began in 2004, but he had already fallen in love with the craft years before. Wilson was in the fifth grade at Burton Geo-World (now Burton Magnet Elementary) when he met Mr. Tabb through an aunt. He was a fifth grade student of Cathy Poole’s and had seen his cousin perform in one of Tabb’s performances. Ms. Poole selected him to be the protagonist in The Butterfly Child, a play about suicide.
“That—fifth grade—was when I fell in love with the arts,” said Wilson. From that point on, for Oscar-nominated Kevin Wilson, “Mr. (Wendell) Tabb was Hillside theater.” Wilson moved on to Shepard for middle school, then Hillside High School, where he impressed Tabb with a performance. Now immersed in the film industry and a celebrity in his own right, he remains proud of his roots, still catches Hillside shows when he comes home, and regularly speaks with his former drama teacher.
“He’s a great mentor, great director, all those things. But beyond all that, he’s just, he’s a good man. Good father figure. He’s a good man of God,” said Wilson, who said he grew up in a single-parent household until he was 15. His mother had become an emancipated minor at 15, living on her own in New York. Wilson said his mom’s circumstances made her tough and beautiful simultaneously. Now a professional and an adjunct professor at North Carolina Central University, his Mom was intentional in how she raised her son, introducing him to men who would help him become a humble man of God himself.
Wilson gravitated toward the piano when his Dad– himself a musician– insisted that he learn to play an instrument, and played the trumpet at Shepard and in the marching band at Hillside. Tabb was known to give his students an ultimatum and did just that with Wilson: choose either band or theater, which changed his entire life’s trajectory. Not only did he begin carving out a career, but it taught him how to be fully immersed in the craft of his choosing.
“That’s what I’m confronted with as a creative right now. I can't do everything. If I have all of my tentacles out, I’m not going to be able to concentrate fully on one specific thing. Mr. Tabb was trying to help us understand that theater and arts is a full-time job. It’s not just something that you can just devote half of yourself to. Either you’re going to be all in or you’re not going to be in at all,” said Wilson.
He remembers rehearsals that lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
“It was just a part of the process. An enjoyable part of the process,” he said. “We had to be pushed beyond our limits to really understand how great we could be. By coddling the students, they're not going to understand how far they can really go. If you’re in the gym and you’re working out, when you’re pushing past that set that you felt like was your last, you throw one more up because you realize that that’s how your muscles get built,” he said.
Teachers demanded excellence, and Wilson, to this day, pushes himself as a result.
He tells of being a student at Burton where there was a television station in the basement of the school. There, students could produce, anchor, report the weather, or direct, among other jobs. All of the classrooms had televisions.
“Doing that was fascinating to me. I think that was when I fell in love with television and just the process of taking something from being in front of the camera and presenting it on a screen. Then he met Ms. Poole, who introduced him to theater and acting with a performance of The Butterfly Child.
“I went to Shepard and by the time I got to Shepard, I was completely in love with theater,” said Wilson.
The multi-talented Wilson was driven by that passion. He once brought an entire piano to drama class to produce a musical, said Tabb. “That’s something I probably would have done,” said the retired master teacher.
Wilson and current Drama Director Tiffany Agerston were classmates. They performed together, playing husband and wife in Lorraine’ Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. They also performed together in the class’s production of John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.
Wilson undeniably acknowledges the foundation that was laid at the historic Hillside High School under the tutelage of Wendell Tabb.
“The way Mr. Tabb staged productions made people think he had a million dollar Broadway budget,” said Wilson.
Although he had no idea at the time what Tabb had to do to build his stages at Hillside, Wilson carried a standard of excellence with him into his filmmaking career after graduating from Hillside. He has found that financing a production requires relationship-building and persuasion.
“The thing that really inspired us when we were at Hillside was meeting celebrities who had come out of Hillside. What it did for us was show us what was possible,” he said.
The Incomparable Durham Public Schools
Wilson met and married his high school sweetheart Timmeshia, who is a nurse. They live in New York with their two sons and daughter. School-based experiences like the ones they had when they were Durham Public Schools students have been extremely hard to find for their children, said Wilson.
School systems where they live “pale in comparison to the resources that we had access to when I was in Durham Public Schools,” said Wilson. “I made the mistake of assuming that every school system around the country was like Durham Public Schools…absolutely not,” he said.
Wilson said he and his classmates in drama are very protective over the program at Hillside High School to this day, for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which has been the profound influence that he’s seen take hold of his peers.
“It really saved some students’ lives. And I don’t think that's hyperbole. I knew students who, while I was in school, because of where they grew up or their home life, they were exposed to things and Tabb kept them from that with after school programs and by their involvement in the program,” said Wilson.
It Keeps Me Up at Night
Admittedly, the craft of filmmaking is emotionally demanding, said Wilson, not to mention that he feels as though he’s racing against time.
“Everything I do, there’s a sense of urgency. It does keep me up at night,” he said.
Wilson was the brainchild behind Proctor and Gamble’s Widen the Screen commercial, which challenges the viewer to dispel stereotypes about African American life.
“That's just one of many pieces of art that needs to be presented. It needs to be more consistent. Widen the Screen, it was great, but it can't end there, you know…. When I make these projects about nonviolence and children being killed and accidentally killed by guns, and racism and all the things that we're confronted with in our world, to actually put something together to present visually requires a lot out of you emotionally, sometimes even physically. When I do that, though, I remind myself that if I don't make this right now, how will my children be impacted by my reluctance to make this later on. You know, I'm always thinking about what I do and how it's going to impact my children and family, and so that generally guides the types of projects that I choose. And it's why a lot of the work that I've done up to now has been in that realm of activism and dealing with social issues,” he said.
Wilson’s mission is to impact the community through his work, and inspire young people to do the same.
“Strong minds break strong chains. We have to invite the spirit of learning until the day we die.
Continue to have your cup open. You don’t ever want to have a full cup. Stay in a position to learn something new,” he said.
Wilson earned a Master of Fine Arts in Film Production from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2017, he was honored to receive the Spike Lee Production Fellowship. He recently completed the Netflix Original Documentary Series UNTOLD: The Rise and Fall of AND1, currently streaming on NETFLIX on August 23. He is an active member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
“When I left Hillside…I was chasing the bar that Mr. Tabb had already set, but I've not reached it yet,” he said.
He’s putting in the work and enjoying the view along the way.
“We've had such a beautiful journey…because, we know what it feels like to connect with the audience in a certain way, and we know what it feels like to be surrounded by such excellence…that's what we're chasing. I don't think it would be the same had I gone somewhere else, you know?” he said.
Wilson’s work and upcoming productions are documented on his website at https://www.directedbykevin.com/.