Find Your People: Laakan McHardy ’16 and Michelle Hurst ’74
Michelle Hurst ’74, actor. Laakan McHardy ’16, theatre arts/psychology major. Connected in November 2015 when Michelle returned to campus to speak at the Black Alumnae Conference. Laakan was assigned to be her assistant. The two shared an immediate understanding of each other and have kept in touch as Laakan navigates her way from student to alumna.
As part of the Association of Pan African Unity on campus, I was very excited to participate in the Black Alumnae Conference (BAC) last fall. The announcement came that Michelle Hurst ’74, an actor known in part for her role as Claudette in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, would be among the distinguished alumnae speaking, and, needless to say, we were all very excited. Orange is the New Black is popular among Mohos for obvious reasons: the nearly all-female cast is a rarity in television; and the real, gritty depictions of women are more of what the world needs to see. So, when we were told some of the speakers would require assistance, my ears perked up immediately. The BAC board members thought Michelle and I might bond over our love of theater, so they asked me to be her assistant. I was nervous, and I was thrilled.
As the weeks counted down, the day finally came. I met Michelle bright and early one morning, and we sat down and talked over tea. Just minutes into our conversation, Michelle had me laughing hysterically. She told me stories about her life and her journey as an actor, and she shared with me her passions, hobbies, and things that make her happy—like her extensive library of books. She was down-to-earth, candid, and fun. Michelle’s openness struck me immediately, and over that weekend she shared her warmth and wisdom with everyone she encountered.
During her keynote speech Michelle welcomed the audience with the tunes of Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, and Marvin Gaye and told the audience, “If you’re coming in, you gotta dance.” Before she had even begun her speech, she had completely won everyone over—two-stepping, clapping, and grinning all the while. If there is one thing I have learned about Michelle, it is that she is completely her own, and she encourages people to revel in their uniqueness. Like me, the audience was in stitches, as Michelle shared her stories and was totally absorbed as she read poetry and encouraged us to go forward. At the end of her address audience members jumped to their feet and gave a roaring applause, and Michelle met them with smiles, laughter, and even embraces afterward.
Over that weekend I had the privilege to share moments of reminiscing and nostalgia with Michelle as she toured Rooke Theatre, where she had graced the stage as a student, and an old dorm room. We sat and chatted in her room for the weekend as an episode of Law & Order played in the background. Since then, Michelle and I continue to share stories of life, work, and rehearsals, always laughing heartily together.
Mount Holyoke really is such a special community, and I am so grateful for the relationships I have formed here—with students, faculty, staff, and alumnae. As a soon-to-be alum, I am happy to have this network of support that I know will last no matter the years and distance between us.
Over the years, I have returned to the Mount Holyoke College campus on several occasions, mostly for class reunions. (Happy to say I’ve attended all but the first two!) Last year, however, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the Black Alumnae Conference, and I said yes, because no one had ever asked me to be a keynote anything, and, why not? As the date for the conference drew closer, of course, I booked a job. Part of an actor’s life is never knowing when and where you will be working. In setting work dates and travel plans, I stressed my need to keep my commitment to doing the presentation at MHC. After three and a half weeks of shooting a film in Toronto, I flew to Bradley (via Philadelphia) and got to South Hadley. Lynn Pasquerella ’80 graciously put me up at the President’s House. Utterly exhausted, I was introduced to my assistant for the weekend: Laakan McHardy ’16.
The universe sends signs sometimes to let you know, “Everything is gonna be alright.” In the film I had just worked on, my character was a Jamaican grandmother. When meeting Laakan, I detected a slight accent and asked her where she was from. “Montego Bay, Jamaica,” she replied. Everything was going to be just fine.
But I knew that going in. There is a specific reliability and comfort that comes from Mount Holyoke women, no matter what generation. A little over two years ago, I was involved in a serious car accident. Two months in the hospital; put into coma for sixteen days. One of those life experiences you think will never happen to you. But it did. As soon as my MHC classmates found out, they stepped up: cards, books, visits, phone calls, emails, you name it. One classmate who lived in the city I was hospitalized in visited, brought me workout clothes for rehab, and brought me water when I complained about the water in the hospital!
Over the weekend of the Black Alumnae Conference, I got to know Laaken a little bit. She is a theatre arts/psychology major. She likes the independence of being a creative type. She picked up on my wacky way of doing things and was very accepting of the knowledge I’ve gained becoming the actor I am. We enjoyed easy conversation. Walks across our beautiful campus. Even though it was a little chilly, there was comfort in visiting my old dorm rooms and classrooms. Speaking with students and finding out what’s on their minds.
The sisterhood that comes from being at MHC lasts a lifetime. Really, it does.
April 13, 2016