Aimee K. Bryant is a fixture on Twin Cities stages, so it's hard to grasp that her acting career nearly derailed the day it began.
"I bombed my entrance audition," she said recently, recalling a shyness attack that hit just before her entrance audition at Howard University. She'd grown up singing and acting in Detroit around school, church and a job at a fudge shop.
Suddenly, she was on a much bigger stage. "I had a professor tell me, 'Aimee, I do not think acting is for you,'" she said.
The professor, it turns out, was wrong. Her chronic shyness did not end her stage career. Bryant landed a job right out of college with Minnesota-based Climb Theater. She traveled the state in productions for school age audiences that promoted literacy, drug abuse prevention and other educational messages.
Bryant's current role is Marian the librarian in "The Music Man" by Ten Thousand Things theater in Minneapolis. The role — a small town Iowa librarian who falls in love with a flimflamming salesman — often goes to blond, blue-eyed actors, which Bryant is not. She's been cast against type before as British royalty and Amelia Earhart, among others.
It's one of the things Bryant loves about the Twin Cities theater scene. Now 40, the African-American actor lands parts in all sorts of productions, balancing work with raising her eight-year-old daughter.
"If I was in New York they would never cast me as the Queen of England — as Queen Elizabeth — you know what I'm sayin'?" she said. "I wouldn't be playin' Marian the librarian in New York, most places."
In her hometown of Detroit, she grew up in a safe, caring neighborhood populated with lots of educated and successful African-Americans. Her life revolved around school and church where she was encouraged to showcase her musical talent.
Bryant says work at the fudge shop honed her performance skills. "So you're making the fudge, tellin' jokes, singin' songs, fudge songs, like, 'Hey, pretty baby would you like some fudge. It tastes so good and it doesn't cost too much..."
While she's made a home in the Twin Cities, she misses the African American culture — the language, music and shared values of her hometown.
"It's hard to describe but it's love, it is love, and it's sad to me that everyone doesn't get to grow up in that kind of love," she said.
Bryant says she wants her daughter to grow up with the confidence she gained in Detroit but adds that it may be a challenge in an environment where black culture is not as pervasive.
"A lot of times black history is just boiled down to slavery and to Martin Luther King," she said. "To learn more and to feel good about where you come from and who you are, all of that takes an investment in yourself or an investment from the people around you."
As for the countless hours she spent in church, Bryant says she's no longer religious in a traditional way.
"God is that connection, not somebody someplace far away, picking fights, hurting some people, and coddling and showing favor to other people," she said.
Bryant's "Music Man" performances are sold out. But you can catch her in April at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis in a tribute to Roberta Flack.