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Trailblazing Alumni Chris McCauley March 16, 2023

Renita LewisRenita Lewis (Photo Credit: Roger Neve)When Renita Lewis enrolled in college in 2008, she was focused on two things: playing basketball and studying nursing. So, it might be a surprise to learn that she is now an accomplished actor earning her Master of Fine Arts degree in Drama at The Julliard School and starring in a play at Lincoln Center in New York City. For Lewis, the pivot into the arts began with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Theatre.

“It’s all the department—UAB theatre changed my life,” said Lewis, a UAB theatre alumna who graduated in 2014. “What a blessing that I was able to walk through the doors [of the department].”

Lewis’ academic career at UAB did not begin immediately after high school graduation, though.

While in high school in Alabaster, Alabama, Lewis earned a basketball scholarship from the University of Alabama at Huntsville. She was eager to move away from her hometown and experience new things, so she jumped at the opportunity to relocate to Huntsville, play basketball at the collegiate level, and earn a degree in nursing. Those plans changed after she arrived on campus.

“I got placed in a hospice facility during our [nursing] training, and I quickly learned that I was feeling things way too deeply,” said Lewis. “I reached out for support… The advice I received was, ‘You have to get more distance [from] this,’ but I had no tools to really do that.”

At the same time, the basketball program was undergoing personnel changes, and, as a result, Lewis lost her scholarship. Suddenly, she was no longer playing college basketball and feeling distant from her intended career path.

“I wanted to stay in the [health] field, and I ended up switching to health care management,” said Lewis. “I transferred to UAB to be closer to home.”

While at UAB, Lewis started reexamining her interests. Thankfully, during this period of reflection, she enrolled in an acting class with Dennis McLernon, Head of Performance and Professor in the Department of Theatre. The class prompted a moment of discovery for Lewis.

“I thought, ‘These are my people, and this is what I’m supposed to be doing,’” said Lewis. “With Dennis, there was a freedom to explore the imagination and explore given circumstances. Dennis taught us that acting was the study of the human condition. Personally, [he] was giving me tools to handle some real things in my life.”

Soon after taking McLernon’s class, Lewis decided to declare a major in theatre and immediately formed deep bonds with several faculty members, including Karla Koskinen, Cliff Simon, and Marlene Johnson. Through these mentors, Lewis learned about theatre, as well as life.

“I was learning more about myself and people and why I feel the way I feel. The training I received felt so holistic,” said Lewis. “The things I learned in that program, I’m learning now [at Julliard] by the way… I’m just going deeper now.”

That training led her to perform in several memorable productions during her time at UAB, including “Big Love” in 2013 and “Rabbit Hole” in 2014.

One of her most impactful moments at UAB did not focus on theatre, movement, or voice, though. Instead, it was an insight shared by Marlene Johnson soon after she received a difficult health diagnosis.

“She had just received her diagnosis, and she shared it with [my class]. I was distraught,” said Lewis. “I was like, ‘How do you just switch like that [and continue teaching]?’ And [Marlene said], ‘Well, that was one step. We have to move to the next step or else we’re just stuck in the chaos. That’s momentum. However that step looks, you just are there. Then you take another step, and you’re somewhere else.’ That has brought me through many a dark day.”

Sadly, Johnson passed away on November 2, 2020. Her positive impact on students is undeniable, and her legacy continues to live on at UAB and the Department of Theatre. According to Lewis, Johnson’s powerful words continue to guide her, and she wants to share that same wisdom with future theatre graduates.

“Accept that life is going to happen and that it's leading somewhere, just trust that there is something [ahead],” said Lewis. “Keep going. Take another step.”

And Lewis is still taking steps. After graduating from UAB, she moved to New York City, and, for the past seven years, she has starred in off-Broadway productions, commercials, and scripted podcasts. In addition, she teaches theatre and acting in schools across all five boroughs through The Leadership Program. And, on July 20, she will fulfill a lifelong dream when “FLEX” opens at Lincoln Center.

For Lewis, starring in “FLEX” is a full circle moment, because the play (which was written by Chandrice Jones) is about a group of basketball players in the South who aspire to make it to the WNBA—a subject that is close to Lewis’ own experience.

“The show is about these girls trying to get recruited right out of high school in a small southern town… and how big basketball is to these girls and [it connects with] how big [basketball] was for me. All of it is so specific,” said Lewis, as she reflected on the parallels with her own life.

As she looks to the future and continues to prepare for more “steps,” UAB’s Department of Theatre is never far from her heart or mind. “None of this happens without the training I got at UAB. None of it happens,” said Lewis.

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