Although the name Madelyn Porter might not sound familiar, there’s a very good chance you’d recognize her as one of Metro Detroit’s jewels of the theater – a powerful actress who’s graced pretty much every area stage for the past few decades – or from her work at various local institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and Greenfield Village.
But attendees at last week’s Women Who Make Magic Awards presented by radio station WMGC-FM (Magic 105.1) were treated to a different side of Porter, as she was honored as one of 37 women “who has made some magic in Metro Detroit.” The event was hosted by station personality Jim Harper and featured guest speaker John Tesh.
But that’s not the only award the actress and arts advocate has received recently. This past November, the YWCA of Western Wayne County bestowed upon her its Women of Achievement Award in the category of Arts and Communications.
“It makes me feel wonderful being recognized for some things that I really like to do,” Porter told Curtain Calls a few hours before the Magic event. “I don’t have to have any accolades for doing this, because this is what I do. It’s my passion.”
And it’s been so since childhood, the Boston native explained. Her father, Albert Porter, was a jazz musician who played with many of the greats, such as Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, and her mother – still going strong at 93 – is a lifelong lover of the arts. “She would take us to all the different theaters. So she gave us the exposure quite early.”
Porter moved to Detroit while in elementary school and attended several of the city’s parochial schools where her mother taught math and science. “She was one of the few lay black teachers back in my baby boomer days,” she recalled.
After graduating from St. Martin DePorres High School in 1972, she left for Western Michigan University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in communications, arts and sciences.
Then it was off to the University of Missouri’s graduate-level Missouri Repertory Theatre. “They had a wonderful touring company, and I had the pleasure of working with quite a few [now] well-known actors like Ernie Hudson and Ellen Crawford. That was a wonderful experience.”
She returned home after a few years and immersed herself in Detroit’s theater scene. “I’ve probably worked with every theater in the city,” she said, including Detroit’s former crown jewel, The Attic Theatre. While there she performed with Detroupe, a touring mime company, and in midnight shows with Jonathan Round. She also worked there with Tom Sizemore. “In fact, I was going to go west with Tom, but I decided to stay here.” (Sizemore later appeared in such films as “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Natural Born Killers” and “Saving Private Ryan.”)
Over the years, Porter co-founded Street-Life Theatre Productions with actress Sandra D. Hines – “We did a few shows, but we kind of fizzled out” – and MYSS Theatre Productions with Hines, Yvonne P. Mangrum and Sadie Bernice. And she’s toured extensively with her educational show about Sojourner Truth.
But today, the actress is mostly freelancing and “doing one-woman shows all over the place.” That includes storytelling at the DIA and touring with the Michigan Opera Theatre in “Let Freedom Ring,” an original production she co-wrote that chronicles African-American history. And she’s appearing this summer at Greenfield Village in a show called “How I Got Over.”
Where Porter might have the greatest impact, however, is at Hamtramck High School where she serves as the drama coach. “I teach them a lot of things through the arts, like tolerance and racial harmony. And I get a chance to teach them history, science, music and drafting skills – anything you can think of when you do theater, because all those things are touched upon.”
A strong advocate for arts in education, Porter has observed firsthand what a powerful impact the arts have on young people. “A lot of children that are slow readers or have learning problems, [theater] gives them a sense of worth, that they can accomplish and do something that is meaningful and satisfying and fulfilling – not just to them, but to the audience. There’s just this glow in their eyes. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Reflecting back on her recent awards, Porter observed, “It’s just the icing on the cake to be recognized. It makes me realize that what I’m doing is a good thing – and that people look at it as a good thing. And I’m glad for that.”