By Kimberly Paschal| Sports Editor

MAHERSHALA ALI ‘96, who recently won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, gave the Commencement Speech for Saint Mary’s graduating class of 2016 . (Courtesy of College Communications)

MAHERSHALA ALI ‘96, who recently won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, gave the Commencement Speech for Saint Mary’s graduating class of 2016 . (Courtesy of College Communications)

When professor Rebecca Engle was invited to be a guest director for the spring show, “The Imaginary Invalid by Molière,” at Saint Mary’s in the 1980s, she could not have predicted the immense impact she would have on the community. One student in particular, Mahershala Ali, is someone she would have never expected to meet, let alone have made such an impression on.

When Ali committed to Saint Mary’s College in 1992, his intent was not to find a passion in acting. In a 2012 interview, he said, “In a nutshell, I came to [Saint Mary’s] wanting the fullest experience as a student-athlete, and left wanting to experience life as an artist and well-rounded person.” Ali has gone on to be nationally recognized at the Oscars, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, African-American Film Critics Association, NAACP Image Award, and many more.

Professor Engle first encountered Ali during a panel where students in the High Potential Program discussed the challenges they faced as first-generation students, students from a low-income family, or both. After listening to Ali, Engle immediately noticed Ali’s maturity, eloquence, wisdom, and honesty about his life experiences.

Soon enough Engle invited Ali to play a small part in a play she was directing. Ali accepted the invitation his sophomore year, and two years later he was cast in the spring production of “Spunk” by George C. Wolfe, which Ali credits as his “fondest memory in his time at [Saint Mary’s].”

In an interview with East Bay Times, Ali commented on his role in the play saying, “Standing room only. It was a brave undertaking to give me the part, because for the first time in the theatrical history of the school they produced a black play. I had the time of my life.”

“Spunk” is an adaptation of three stories by the famous Black author Zora Neale Hurston set in 1930s Harlem. In one of the stories, Ali plays an abusive husband. Engle described Ali’s performance as “something that blew everyone away.” Fans of the Netflix show Luke Cage may be surprised to hear Ali played a villain from Harlem long before he played the suave, terrifying, “Godfather-type villain” (as described by Ali) and drug lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes.

Ali’s range of characters are a representation of his talents as an actor; from Remy Danton in “House of Cards”, to Boggs in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2,” to Jim Johnson in “Hidden Figures,” and now as Juan in “Moonlight,” Ali has played a range of characters that has given him a solid reputation in the acting community.  Engle noted,  “His role as Juan in ‘Moonlight’ is probably my favorite so far, and I enjoyed him as Remy Danton in House of Cards.” Engle said she will be even more excited “when he finally has a starring role and is on-screen the entire movie”.

“Ali’s experiences as an athlete helped him be a better actor,” said Professor Engle. She remembers him as a very playful person with a rich laugh, but she noted that Ali playfulness and ability to have fun comes from being a “sincerely hard worker.”

In 2016, Ali returned to Saint Mary’s to give the Commencement Speech. “Collectively we are a people in process. I am more a work in progress than I am a success,” Ali stated during the speech back in May 2016. His road to the spotlight was not overnight; it was a journey of hard work and dedication for the past 20 years.

“We’re hoping to get him to come back and do a screening of ‘Moonlight’,” Engle said. “I think the idea came from him, and if he wants to make that happen, the students would be thrilled to welcome him back.” Engle hopes students will be inspired by Ali for what he built upon from his experiences at Saint Mary’s. Engle hopes students can learn from Ali that they should “follow their hearts.”

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