The lush green scenery along the drive to Cullowhee strikes actress Bobbi Baker James ’01 differently than when she was a drowsy student who heard her mother say with a touch of awe, “Hmm… the Lord put a special touch on this part of the world.” To Baker James, the sight resembled broccoli, so she said so and drifted back to sleep.
Although she had never been in a play before coming to WCU, she declared theater as her major and began learning the rigorous and sometimes grueling work of invoking every nuance and idiosyncrasy of her roles. She continued the pursuit at the Oxford School of Drama in London and The Juilliard School in New York, where she was the first drama student to graduate with honors. She left eager to take on a range of parts on stage, TV and film.
In Tyler Perry’s comedy-drama TV series “House of Payne,” she became so engrossed one day as Kiki, a sassy, gum-chewing female barber, that Perry had to stop the action. “I was in my zone,” said Baker James. “I said something, and it was so funny the crew couldn’t hold it together. Tyler yelled, ‘Cut!’ and he looked and me and said, ‘Who are you? Where did you come from? What do you know?’ On the spot, he offered me a role in a movie. If I were playing basketball, it would have been a double-double.” (It’s a sports reference Baker James knows well as the wife of Duke University assistant basketball coach Nate James.)
She went on to play a sophisticated, progressive assistant district attorney in Perry’s movie “Madea Goes to Jail,” but not before finding herself as Claudia in a stage adaption of Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye.” Baker James captivated audiences with her character’s struggle with race and class issues – repelling the premise of white superiority and sharing a story about the beauty of blackness, said Jane Adams-Dunford, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs. The New York Times praised her as “terrific,” and Adams-Dunford describes her as multi-dimensional, smart, energetic, captivating, authentic, quick-witted and beautiful, and predicts her best performances are yet to come.
In accepting WCU’s 2011 Young Alumna Award, Baker James described how the “broccoli” she associated with WCU a decade ago seems different now. “Maybe because of my career, because I just turned 30 and I have a baby, I have a much different attitude toward broccoli,” she said. Now she knows the vegetable promotes optimal brain function, helps with vision and offers qualities believed to help a person fight cancer. “I got a lot of things from Western Carolina that help to kill cancerous thoughts,” said Baker James. She named faculty and staff members who had taught and advised her. “I can remember their eyes and know that they were telling me the truth when other people said that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or pretty enough, or that I would never make it,” said Baker James. “These words would try to attack my body and my being, these things could potentially become cancerous to my craft – Western gave me so many things to fight those. So when my mother asks me if WCU still looks like broccoli, I am going to tell her it most certainly does.”