Tracie Thoms' discipline as a performer, nurtured early on at the Baltimore School for the Arts, has enabled her to be spontaneous in character every week as Kat Miller, an avid detective on TV's "Cold Case." Even in the train-wreck big-screen version of "Rent," she fused her eagerness for performing with the passion of Joanne, a lawyer who just has to make a case for herself - or at least make a scene.
Chris Rock's engaged and engaging new documentary "Good Hair," a good-humored exploration of the meaning and impact of female hairstyles in the African-American community, offered Thoms a chance to do something she hasn't done before on-screen. Here, she's spontaneous in her own character.
When Thoms shows up, the audience responds with pleasure and relief - obviously, viewers think, Rock has good taste in interview subjects. As the film goes on, and Rock returns to her again and again, you realize he has made her the main spokeswoman for African-American women staying "natural" with their hair. It's a good fit: At her best, Thoms is the Ms. Natural of performers.
"I thought there were going to be several other women with curly hair," Thoms says in a phone interview during her "Cold Case" lunch break. "Many of us in entertainment choose to wear our hair natural, but often it's under a weave or a wig." Sometimes a producer dictates that an African-American character must have straight or "relaxed" hair, so the actors use weaves or wigs to shield their real hair from the rigors of day-to-day steaming, pressing and reshaping. But for Thoms, it's a painful irony that a strategy black performers adopt for practical reasons has become an ideal for African-American youth. She hopes the film will raise awareness of the perils of distinct ethnic and racial cultures adopting the dominant white culture's standards of beauty.
On a practical level, what rouses Thoms' ire is that even at the high plateau of network or studio entertainment, black actors must protect their hair from hairdressers "who don't know how to style natural hair. I have to teach people how to do hair, and it's not my area of expertise! People can graduate from beauty school and know everything about white hair and nothing about African-American hair."
That one disconnect proves to Thoms how well the subject of African-American hair can raise questions about the tangled roots of white and black American life.
"African-Americans are always forced to learn the other culture, but the other culture is not forced to learn ours. I went to acting school at Juilliard, and we learned Shakespeare and Shaw, but we never did the work of a single African-American playwright, not August Wilson or Ntozake Shange or Imir Baraka. How would you feel as a white person if you went to acting school and all you were taught were Wilson, Shange and Baraka, and not Shakespeare and Shaw?"
The movie's power to start unpredictable conversations confirmed for Thoms that "Good Hair" is not only a juicy subject in its own right but also "a microcosm of bigger things."
Thoms and Rock connected as colleagues when they both appeared in the 2007 edition of "The 24 Hour Plays on Broadway," a benefit celebration for New York City arts education in which a half-dozen playwrights concoct a 10-minute play between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. the next morning, and directors and actors put them on that night. Rock had just seen Thoms in "Death Proof," the Quentin Tarantino half of "Grindhouse," and was excited to meet a woman who had managed "to play Sam Jackson in a Quentin Tarantino movie."
Rock couldn't find anything he wanted to eat at the breakfast table, so he and Thoms wound up at a nearby McDonald's. Soon she noticed he was looking at the "baby-curl twists" on her head. He started asking her about her style; he was shocked to learn she had never had a weave. He told her about the documentary - he had just come back from his trip to India, a centerpiece of the finished movie as the source of the beauty industry's hair. He said, "You need to let me call you and talk to you about your hair." In February 2008, he did. In January 2009, the film won the documentary jury prize at Sundance.
Thoms recalls that Baltimore "was the hair capital of the world when I was coming up. We had some styles in Baltimore - fried, dyed and laid to the side. We had crunchy hair, all sprayed up, with a crackle to it if you touched it."
Thoms wasn't always a girl natural.
"I had a relaxer until '97 or '98; I thought I'd have a perm until I died, even with all the burning and scabbing and getting hair done on schedule. I used to go to the Dett Set hair salon on Wabash and then the Golden Comb hair salon. Baltimore really was a leader in hair culture then; maybe during the 1960s, it was white hair with beehives, and that came over to the black community in the 1980s. We used to wear our hair up in beehives and gel it to death. There was a girl in school, I don't know how she got into a car. She wrote her name in rhinestones in her hair. We would put spring colors in our hair, it was a big thing in Baltimore. I imagine it still is."
In grad school, Thoms went back to braiding her hair, which she had done when she was a little girl. Braiding was the sanest way to manage it both as a kid romping in the summertime and as a grad student "rolling around on the ground doing exercises at Juilliard." After two years at Juilliard, "All my 'relaxed' hair was gone and I was left with an Afro." As an interim plan, Thoms adopted the Afro version of ponytails - "Afro puffs, they give you a pom-pom look on either side of your head." When her classmates told her they were cute, she kept them, and as her hair grew she experimented with ways of keeping it honest and kinky.
A natural look clicked for her, but Thoms doesn't want other African-American women simply to follow her lead. She hopes women will "get to know their own hair" before they fall into a pattern of straightening it simply because silky hair is the reigning ideal. "Oprah did a show about white women not knowing their own hair color because they start coloring it so early. We don't know our own hair's texture."
Thoms has stayed true to her roots in more ways than one. As an artist in residence at Baltimore School for the Arts, she performed her first solo show - a cabaret - to benefit the school at Germano's Trattoria on Jan. 2. She will perform there again on April 8, with students from the school, before appearing April 29 through May 2 at Center Stage in "Tracie Thoms & Friends," a version of the cabaret that will include guests. Thoms says she was floored by how many people showed up to see her at Germano's - "and not just my family!"
Her circle of friends is sure to keep growing with "Good Hair."