Unlike many of her peers who were on stage from the time they were little, Mary Hill didn’t find her way to the theater until college. In fact, her pursuit of the arts resulted from a happy – if scary – accident. Hill was on her way to becoming a medical assistant when she inadvertently paralyzed a classmate’s arm while practicing blood draws on him in a phlebotomy course. Although the student recovered full use of his arm within days, Hill never returned to medicine.
Instead, she threw herself into acting.
“Mary is easily one of the most talented actors I’ve worked with over the past 30+ years at UCI,” says Eli Simon, Chancellor’s Professor of drama. “She has a rare combination of talent, creativity and vision that allows her to completely inhabit the characters she plays on stage.”
Hill starred in the world premiere of The Biddy Mason Story during its campus run from Dec. 1-4, sharing the unbelievable true story of a woman who spent the first 37 years of her life enslaved and then became a wealthy landowner and philanthropist who shaped Los Angeles and founded the city’s First African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.
Like most people, Hill had never heard of Biddy Mason, despite growing up in L.A. right in the shadow of Mason’s historic influence. But when UCI acting professor Annie Loui told Hill about the play being developed by University of Southern California’s Dana Johnson, Hill was inspired to learn more.
“My life was impacted by this powerful woman who came from slavery. If it weren’t for Biddy Mason, I literally wouldn’t be here,” says Hill.
Hill is the youngest of 13 children or, as she likes to joke, “lucky number 13.” Growing up in El Monte, a suburb of L.A., she says her siblings were the only Black kids at her schools. She loved watching musicals like Annie and enjoyed Disney sing-alongs, although she never participated in any local theater.
At Victor Valley College, Hill went into her first audition feeling clueless about headshots and resumés, and chose to sing a Gaelic lullaby from Disney’s Brave. But the director saw something in her and cast her as a major character in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
When Hill transferred to Cal Poly Pomona, her portrayal of Esther Mills in Intimate Apparel made her a finalist in the 2018 Kennedy Center American College Theater National Festival. The character, an African American seamstress finding her way in 1905 New York City, resonated with Hill.
“Racism and segregation are hard things but real things. Not talking about them doesn’t mean they’re erased from history,” says Hill. “I wanted to walk in my truth and share all that encapsulated me, whether that be my weird, funny monologues or a slave song.”
Her success at that competition cemented her desire to continue acting. “It was a one in a million experience for me.”
She was inspired to apply for M.F.A. programs, and she was over the moon to be among eight individuals invited to join UCI’s graduate cohort in drama in 2020. She focused on bringing her full, authentic self to the audition, right down to singing the old spiritual “Oh, Freedom.”
“I wanted to walk in my truth and share all that encapsulated me, whether that be my weird, funny monologues or a slave song,” says Hill. “It was like a big breath of fresh air, becoming more myself than I even knew.”
It begins with individuality
Hill enjoys using arts to help young people find and embrace their individuality. Her major at Cal Poly Pomona was in education and community theater, and she has worked for Disney off and on since she was an undergraduate, as a store ambassador and more recently at the Disneyland Resort in a program that taught children about the animation process. In both roles, she focused on teaching children to embrace art as a form of individual expression.
“I wanted to educate these young children that their art is their own, and that is special enough,” Hill says. “It all begins with your individuality. Without you, there is no art.”
Hill uses the same philosophy when she teaches undergraduate drama classes at UCI.
“Without you, these characters wouldn’t be alive. Without you, there’s no breath in it,” she tells her students. “Even if this character is well known on stage, how can you say it while keeping in mind that you’re in this character now?”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hill’s entire first year of graduate school was taught online. But as someone who likes to look on the bright side, Hill says she loved being in her pajamas every day. The experience forced her to gain digital skills she can use as more and more auditions – even for live theater – transition to submitting recordings.
“It was a learning experience, and it really did help me see things in a different way,” Hill says. “I had to learn body language and to communicate across this new medium.”
Not until her second year at UCI did Hill have the opportunity to perform on stage in CTSA. As part of Audio Theater, she read the play she wrote, The Happiest Bunch, inspired by her mom and sister. Her mom recognized herself as the muse right away.
In the winter, she performed at the Claire Trevor Theatre in the farce Rebecca Oaxaca Lays Down a Bunt, showcasing her comedic chops.
But the summer of 2022 brought an unexpected turn: Hill landed her first professional acting job in the New Swan Shakespeare Festival. The theater world’s unrelenting obsession with Shakespeare frustrated Hill. As a 21st century ingénue, she worried about connecting to characters and stories created over 400 years ago. But colleagues urged her to give Shakespeare a chance, and she ended up spending the summer getting “lost in the sauce,” she says.
She worked hard to find ways to connect herself to the shopkeeper Angela in Comedy of Errrorrs and to channel immortality and power of the goddess Diana in Pericles.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who taught me that acting comes from within,” says Hill. “I’ve molded each and every one of the characters I’ve played, and each and every one of them has Mary in them, too.
“It’s been a learning experience for me, not only that I learned from myself, but also the people around me,” she says. “It’s changed the way I look at old man Shakespeare.”
After Hill breathing life into Biddy Mason, she will turn her attention to her M.F.A. thesis project, which she hopes will incorporate her love of not just drama but also music, dance and painting.
While she hopes to continue acting on stage and someday on screen, she loves teaching and experimenting with other forms of art. In fact, she’s a self-taught DJ who spins electronic dance music under the name DJ Smourz.
“I’m always going to find an artistic outlet,” she says. “Life’s too short not to be smiling.
“I’m aiming to tell stories and be inspiring as I’ve been inspired. I’m learning as I go, and earning as I grow,” Hill says. “Everyday life is teaching me a lesson. Every day I’m learning something – every single day.”
If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu. Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The Claire Trevor School of Arts plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/claire-trevor-school-of-the-arts/.