Angela Bassett is an American actress, director, producer, and activist. Known for her portrayals of strong African-American female leads, Bassett is the recipient of numerous accolades, including; three Black Reel Awards, a Golden Globe Award, seven NAACP Image Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, in addition to nominations for an Academy Award, and seven Primetime Emmy Awards.
Bassett was born in New York City, the daughter of Betty Jane (née Gilbert) and Daniel Benjamin Bassett and was raised in Harlem. Bassett’s middle name was given to her in honor of her aunt Evelyn. The Bassett surname comes from her great-grandfather William Henry Bassett, who took the surname of his former slave owner. Ten months after Bassett was born, her mother became pregnant and had a second child, Bassett’s sister D’nette. Bassett said the pregnancy “only made things harder.” Bassett’s parents “shipped” her to stay with her father’s sister, Golden. While her aunt did not have any children of her own, she “loved children, and she was good with them.”
After her parents’ divorce, she relocated from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to St. Petersburg, Florida, where she and her sister D’nette were raised by their social worker/civil servant mother. Bassett did not see her father again for several years, until she attended her grandmother’s funeral.
There, Bassett met her father’s daughter from his first marriage, Jean, who at twelve years old, was several years older than Bassett. After graduating from Jordan Park Elementary School, she began being bused out of her neighborhood to attend Disston Middle School for seventh grade. The year she began attending was 1970, one year before the first year that busing was implemented to integrate public schools in St. Petersburg. After completing seventh grade, she was bused to Azalea Middle School for eighth and ninth grade. Bassett’s mother became more involved in her daughter’s grades and told her and her sister the pair were going to college.
In her younger years, Bassett was “in love” with the Jackson 5 and dreamed of marrying a member of the family group, stating it would probably be “whoever had the cutest, roundest Afro at the time. In my imagination we would have children and live in a real house.” As her interest in entertainment developed, Angela and her sister would often put on shows, reading poems or performing popular music for their family.
At Boca Ciega High School, Bassett was a cheerleader and a member of the Upward Bound college prep program, the debate team, student government, drama club and choir. An “A” and “B” student for the most part, Bassett got her first “C” in physical education, and tried to convince her mother not to be disappointed by the grade. Bassett called the grade the “average,” leading her mother to say she did not have “average kids.” As Bassett described, a “sense of pride” developed in her and she did not get another “C” until college. During high school, Bassett became the first African-American from Boca Ciega to be admitted to the National Honor Society. She participated in Upward Bound, an academic and cultural enrichment program for underprivileged students. Bassett says she and the other participants did not see themselves as underprivileged.
Bassett attended Yale University and received her B.A. degree in African-American studies in 1980. In 1983, she earned an M.F.A. degree from the Yale School of Drama, despite opposition from her paternal aunt who warned her to not “waste” her “Yale education on theater.” She was the only member of Bassett’s family to have gone to both college and graduate school. At Yale, Bassett met her future husband Courtney B. Vance, a 1986 graduate of the drama school. Bassett was also classmates with actor Charles S. Dutton.
After graduation, Bassett worked as a receptionist for a beauty salon and as a photo researcher. Bassett soon looked for acting work in the New York theater. One of her first New York performances came in 1985 when she appeared in J. E. Franklin’s Black Girl at Second Stage Theatre. She appeared in two August Wilson plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of her long-time instructor Lloyd Richards. The Wilson plays featuring Bassett were Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986). In 2006, she had the opportunity to work on the Wilson canon again, starring in Fences alongside longtime collaborator Laurence Fishburne at the Pasadena Playhousein California.
In 2018, Bassett was awarded an honorary D.F.A. degree from her alma mater, Yale University. Photo Credit: Getty