Two days after his show was nominated for a Grammy, Antoine L. Smith returned to the Des Moines Area Community College campus for the first time since graduating in August 2005.
"Three weeks after I graduated from DMACC, I went on tour with 'Sesame Street Live!,'" Smith recalled while sitting down to speak with the Des Moines Register. "I was always an artist, I always wanted to be a performer. I went to the University of South Dakota for classical voice and then I came to DMACC, so performing has always been part of my life."
Though Smith is now most recognizable for his stage work — notably, the recent Grammy-nominated and Tony-winning "MJ: The Musical" — his degree from Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) actually comes from the school's culinary program.
He returned in mid-November to attend a dinner, lead a workshop and introduce a new DMACC scholarship in his name.
"It's beautiful to be back in the space and to see chef (Robert) Anderson recognized and to see chef (Lori) Dowie recognized," Smith said, before adding in a whisper, "She was one of my favorite instructors...
"It just feels nice to come back to a space where those memories exist."
Introducing a new theater arts scholarship
Carl Lindberg, the co-director of Guided Pathways, a program that aims to make it easier for community college students to get a bachelor's degree and a career path, brought Smith back to DMACC to make an appearance at this year's Norwegian Gourmet Dinner.
"When I was a student at DMACC and we had these gourmet dinners, I would actually come from the kitchen, prepping my food and sing a couple of songs for the diners," Smith recalled. "So this is actually paying homage to those banquets. Now I get to eat the dinner. This is truly a full circle moment for me."
Smith's songs for that evening included "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" from "Oklahoma!" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" from "Carousel."
DMACC introduced a new scholarship in Smith's honor. The Antoine L. Smith Theatre Arts scholarship is designed to help students interested in pursuing a career in the performing arts.
"Nearly three in four community college students work more than 20 hours per week, and in performing arts this can limit a student's best training opportunities: rehearsal and performance," Lindberg said.
The scholarship will be open to DMACC Ankeny Theatre production students onstage and behind the scenes starting in fall 2023.
Lindberg reached out to Smith over social media when he saw that Smith recalled his DMACC days with fondness.
"That's part of the reason we put the time and effort into making sure Antoine could be here," Lindberg said. "But also start some new memories for our current students that don't know that it's possible to go from Iowa to Broadway."
Four years with 'MJ: The Musical'
"MJ: The Musical" is a jukebox musical about the life of Michael Jackson, repurposing songs from the singer's career into a show with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. The show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and took home four of those, including Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in A Musical for Frost's portrayal of the King of Pop.
"We were just nominated for a Grammy two days ago," said Smith, alluding to the Best Musical Theater Album nomination announced on Nov. 15. Songs that Smith appears on in the album include "You Can't Win," "Man in the Mirror" and "Black or White."
Smith's four-year journey with "MJ: The Musical" is another "full-circle moment" for the actor.
Like Michael Jackson, Smith hails from Gary, Indiana. Growing up, most of his family were fans of Jackson's music, so once Smith got into the show after a 2018 audition, he stuck with the project through years of reworking and rewrites as the show was tuned for the Broadway stage."
“(In) 2020, when we were supposed to go to Broadway, the pandemic happened," Smith said. "During the pandemic, we were able to work over Zoom… There were script changes. There were song changes. We were still very active during the pandemic, so when we did come back together in October of 2021, it wasn’t foreign to us. It was something that we had continued to work on.”
Smith plays two named characters in the show. The first is Berry Gordy, the CEO and founder of Motown who discovered Michael Jackson (played by Myles Frost) and the Jackson 5. He also plays Nick, a touring stage manager, in the show.
"'You Can't Win' is the one that I'm one of the leads on with my friend Tavon Olds-Sample who plays the middle-Michael in 'MJ,'" Smith said. " Berry Gordy actually cast (Jackson) in 'The Wiz,' which 'You Can't Win' is from. So it's Berry Gordy and Michael Jackson singing 'You Can't Win' together."
Though seeing "MJ: The Musical" requires a long flight or a lengthy drive, it's a show that Smith has been surprised to see so many Iowans come out to witness on Broadway.
"A lot of the times they'll reach out to my parents or teachers that I'm still in contact with, (letting them know) 'Please let Antoine know I'm coming,'" Smith said. "It's actually been pretty amazing, the support from Iowa, all the way in New York City, has been phenomenal."
Antoine L. Smith looking forward
Past performances of significance to Smith have included an all-Black version of "Oklahoma!" at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2018, where he played Curly, and was an understudy for Harpo and Adam in the 2015 revival of "The Color Purple," which also featured Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson.
Looking at the years ahead, Smith hopes his scholarship can be helpful to future DMACC students. Though details about how much the scholarship will fund are still being ironed out, Smith noted that he'd love to see it become a full ride at some point.
"It's so important for young artists that want to go into the arts to have an opportunity to do so," he said. "I don't think a monetary deficit should keep them from that. Not everybody is meant to be an athlete or a politician. Some people were meant to be artists, I think that's important."
As far as his own career, Smith knows exactly what sort of role he's hoping to get down the line.
"The dream role for me is the role that will be created for me," he said. "Not something that someone has already put their stamp on but something that I can put my own stamp on and be the blueprint of."
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Broadway star and DMACC alum, Antoine L. Smith offers a new scholarship