Saving Grace: Dondre Whitfield
Growing up, Dondré Whitfield wasn’t the least bit interested in acting. In fact, it was something he avoided because he says he didn’t want to get beat up.
“In my neighborhood, being in a school play was like being in the glee club,” says the Brooklyn, New York native. But there was a teacher who saw talent in Whitfield and urged him to direct his energy towards acting.
“I ended up getting in some trouble and she finally said, ‘you either come be in my play or you are going to serve your detention.’ Well, I ain’t no dummy,” Whitfield continues. “Being on stage was a strength as opposed to being a weakness. I was that student who finished my work before everybody else. Having too much energy and time on my hands was already a recipe for disaster as a kid.
“My report card said ‘Dondré is an outstanding student, however….” So, when I got on stage I’d finally found a home for all of my energy, wit, and outspokenness. I was blessed that I found this outlet at such a young age.”
His first professional acting gig came in 1984 with a recurring role on the popular series “The Cosby Show.” Since that time, the 48-year-old has built up an impressive resume including a two year-run on The NBC daytime soap opera, Another World, the UPN sitcom Girlfriends and film appearances in Two Can Play That Game and Pastor Brown along with his wife Salli Richardson. In 2015, Whitfield joined the cast of the BET reality comedy series Real Husbands of Hollywood. His latest role is as Remy on the Oprah Winfrey Network drama series, “Queen Sugar.”
It’s a role he immediately felt drawn to.
“As soon as I read the script, I said this is going to be fire with Oprah being the launch pad for it. I knew the character of Remy was going to be somebody I was going to do great justice to. In fact, after I did the audition, I actually sent [creator] Ava [Duvernay] a text message. My wife did Ava’s first film, I Will Follow. Then I did her second film, Middle of Nowhere, so we knew each other.
“I said to her, ‘Look, I know you have to make a great decision here, but I just want you to know that there’s nobody else who’s going to be able to do Remy justice like me. I just have to let you know that because I feel this deep down in my spirit.’ And it was true. Apparently, she felt the same way because not long after that she called me and asked if I would come join the party and that was it.”
So well-liked is the series, that it has been picked up for a third season and regularly averages 2.4 million viewers per episode in delayed viewing. Interestingly, Whitfield’s wife actress Salli Richardson directed two episodes of the drama in the first season.
“One of the assistant directors came to my trailer just before she was about to begin directing the first episode of the show. She said ‘wow man your wife is going to be directing this episode, what do you think that’s going to be like? I told her, ‘we’ve been together for 20 years. She directs me every day, it’s going to be fine.’”
Whitfield and Richardson married in 2002 and were named by Ebony Magazine one of the "10 Hottest Couples.” They have two children together, a daughter named Parker and son named Dondré Jr. The Emmy-nominated actor who was trained at Performing Arts High in New York City admits that while he’s achieved a level of success, managing that success with his Christian walk is a struggle.
“When you are a person who lives by boundaries and you are in an industry that actually encourages you to forget about your boundaries, that can be very challenging—particularly as a married man. When I’m on a set and people are trying to tell me how awesome I am, before I walk into my home I have to literalize all of that messaging because my wife is not going to be telling me how awesome I am. She’s going to be asking me to take out the garbage,” he notes. “So, if I walk in with the expectation that my wife is going to fulfil the same things that people on a set or people in the street are going to fulfill, then I’m not managing my expectations properly, and that’s going to get me in trouble. I’m having to constantly keep those things in perspective and to constantly cling to my faith.”
While maintaining integrity in a field that often lacks it, Whitfield points out that it’s his job that provides a platform for what really fuels him and that’s working as a life coach to help others live out the purpose that God has ordained for them.
“My purpose is to train young males how to become men and how to heal and restore women out of the hands of males who don’t know how to be men,” he explains. “When I speak on those subjects, I’m speaking out of a great understanding, and my great understanding comes from suffering in those areas and watching other people suffer and struggle in those areas.”
He admits that the early days of his marriage provided an opportunity to better understand the dynamic between men and women and how to identify issues that triggers a breakdown in relationships.
“When I engaged with my wife, there was difficulty and I didn’t’ understand what that is, so I began to scrutinize and examine it. And I finally came up with the answer. Because all day long, someone is telling you one thing, and then you go to another space, and they aren’t telling you that same thing, you’re going to get your feelings hurt. So, when people in relationships get their feelings hurt, what they do is run to fill those voids in different ways. Some people do it with drugs, dangerous behavior like driving fast, alcohol, outside relationships, throwing themselves into their work. And all of those behaviors are dangerous to yourself because they do great damage.
“When you damage yourself, you’re not the person that you need to be for your partner and for your relationship. So subsequently, your partner and your relationship will suffer as a result of it. And it did for some time. Until I began to get handle on it, so now I have a greater understanding of exactly what that is, and it’s so much easier to manage and to navigate.”
Whitfield also attributes his success in his marriage and life in general to God. Though, he grew up in church and got baptized as a child, he says after better understand God’s Word, he got baptized again as an adult and strives to live out his faith in every area of his life.
“I walk through life knowing that I am a servant who’s here to help others and that sometimes in my flesh I make mistakes. But God grants me with grace that’s necessary to have another opportunity the next day.”