“Dr. Uggams” Addressed 2015 Class of the School of Fine Arts at Commencement

(View photos in the UConn 2015 gallery.)

View the full speech here.

Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress, singer, and recording artist Leslie Uggams received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Connecticut, Storrs on Saturday, May 9 during the School’s 2015 commencement ceremonies. Dr. Uggams then delivered the commencement address to the graduating class, sharing industry insights gleaned from her decades-spanning career.

Sally M. Reis, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, conferred Dr. Uggams with the degree. In her remarks, Reis stated, “Leslie Uggams is one of the leading actresses and most inspired singers of our time. Her work has put a sound track to our history and illuminated our struggles. As historian Bob McCann notes, her ability to make her extraordinary talent seem effortless is perhaps why this woman is a ‘quiet legend.’ But a legend she is.

“In the midst of the turbulent civil rights movement she used her art form as an eloquent declaration of equality and as protest. She has broken her share of racial barriers as the first African American to be featured regularly on a weekly, prime time television series in all 50 states, as the first African American woman to host a prime time television variety show, and only the second African American woman to win a Tony Award…Ms. Uggams (also) made history with UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre as the first African American woman to play Mama Rose in the critically lauded musical Gypsy.

“Perhaps best known for her stirring portrayal of Kizzy in the landmark TV mini-series Alex Haley’s Roots (Critics Choice Award, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations), Ms. Uggams has performed to critical and popular acclaim ever since her first professional appearances at the age of nine at the famed Apollo Theater. There she opened for such musical legends as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. Now, after six decades on stage and screen, Ms. Uggams is a legend in her own right.”

As the newly conferred Doctor of Fine Arts, Dr. Uggams thanked the assembly for giving her this second great role to play at the University. She congratulated the graduating class on all their hard work and challenged them to now “work even harder.”

In her inspiring commencement address, Dr. Uggams emphasized the need to be prepared for success. “Luck and talent can only take you so far,” she said. “When opportunity knocks, you must be ready to answer. That means…build on all the wonderful skills you have developed here at UConn. Take voice, acting and dance lessons. Work, work, work at everything. And audition, audition, audition.”

Dr. Uggams also spoke about the need to have a balanced life and a good support system in order to deal with the rejections and the down times. “Ours is a very challenging business,” she said. “It takes so much more than talent to survive. First, when you are lucky enough to make money, save it! You don’t need the mansion and the bling…View yourself as an entrepreneur or salesperson. Don’t be discouraged by rejection, which will come early and often, I guarantee it! Use those rejections as an opportunity to develop confidence and resilience. You can’t be right for every part, but you can be right for some parts. So just believe that every 'no' gets you closer to 'yes.' "

Dr. Uggams concluded her remarks by emphasizing the joy she has experienced in her 60-plus year career. “The most encouraging thing I can say to you is that it never gets old,” she beamed. “If you truly have a passion for the work, and you dedicate yourselves to getting better every day, it will be as exciting in your seventh decade as it was the first time you ever stepped on stage or in front of a camera…You never know what opportunity could be around the very next corner. So keep walking! Enjoy the journey, and seize the day!”

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