Actress Dr. Tommie “Tonea” Stewart’s career in theater education spans nearly 50 years inspiring hundreds of students and giving them the tools to make it in the entertainment business. She recently retired from her current position as the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Alabama State University.
After a 48-year career as an educator (with almost three decades at ASU), Stewart retired after the end of the 2019 spring term to have more time to devote to her family and to concentrate more on her acting career.
Her film and television roles include, “Mississippi Burning,” “A Time to Kill,” “The Rosa Parks Story,” and “Mississippi Damned.” She may still be best known for her recurring role of Miss Etta Kibbee in the long-running television series “In the Heat of the Night.” Most recently, she appeared in the hit film, “Girls Trip” and in the Netflix original movie “Come Sunday.”
“To everything there is a season, and I know that it is now my season to close one chapter of my life and to open-up others,” Stewart said. “I am ready to enjoy my family, my children and my grandchildren. They are all awesome, and they have shared me with others all of their lives. I love my family more than words can express…while I can, it is my desire to help them to reach their goals as they have allowed me to reach mine.”
Stewart has served not only as the dean of COVPA, but also as a tenured professor, and as the chair of the theater department at ASU. She started at the historically Black university in 1990 and was an ambassador for the school.
“Dean Stewart will be greatly missed by everyone at Alabama State University. We are grateful for her leadership in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and for her dedication to her students. We certainly wish her well, but she will always be a valued member of the ASU family,” said ASU president, Dr. Quinton T. Ross Jr.
During her tenure, more than 40 ASU graduates have gone on to earn master of fine arts degrees in theater arts at institutions such as Yale, Brandeis University and New York University. Several COVPA alumni are currently on Broadway or have starred in Broadway shows, as well as in major television shows and movies.
A native of the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, Stewart said she gained much insight into acting by observing her hometown residents and her family. She received her formal acting education, a B.S. degree in speech and theater from Jackson State University and an M.A. in Theatre Arts from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
In 1989, she completed her Ph.D. in theater arts from Florida State University, making history by becoming the university’s first Theatre-McKnight-Doctoral-Fellow, and the first African-American female to receive a doctorate from the FSU College of Theatre Arts.
She’s won several awards over the years including the New York World Festival Gold Medal Award for the narration of the National Public Radio International Series, “Remembering Slavery,” and she was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her role in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” Stewart was also recognized by President Barack Obama as a “Champion of Change.”
“The beauty of being able to draw out and validate the talents of so many students has been most rewarding,” Stewart said. “To visit Broadway in New York City or to see a movie or a TV show and then suddenly to have one of my former students to appear onstage or screen makes all the work and dedication worthwhile. God is good.”