In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to Bennett College in memory of Tennille Foust.
Professor, Actor, Director, Producer, Advocate, Supporter, Beloved
Last week, a curtain rose and lights went up, but the spotlight illuminated an empty stage. The beloved star we expected to see was no longer there.
On Monday, September 12, Bennett’s beloved theater professor Tennille Foust passed away from an illness bravely and quietly fought. Her passing shocked and saddened her college family, the theater community, and the many people who loved, admired, and respected her in the community beyond.
Tennille’s career at Bennett began in 2007, after she had graduated from the Professional Theatre program at North Carolina A&T State University and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She made her way back to Greensboro and served on faculty at Bennett for 15 years, where she was recently named the Sheila C. Johnson Endowed Associate Professor of Theatre.
Over the years, hundreds of students laughed and learned with her in classes on acting, directing, and stage management. She helped students find their voices in Speech and Improvisation. She brought Black history to life through African American theater. She helped her students find their voices and sing their songs. She reminded them (and all of us) that we could be whomever we dreamed of being.
And she showed us how. She took the stage in dozens of plays—Color Purple, Black Nativity, Ain’t Misbehaving, Mad at Miles, Crowns, The Piano Lesson and so many others. Whether she was playing a Colored Girl or wise elder Miss Mary, a Steel Magnolia or the Black Madonna, she gave everything to her roles. She delighted and moved audiences in performances at the Barn Dinner Theatre, Touring Theatre of North Carolina, Triad Stage, and other venues. But she also performed at churches, schools, and community organizations with the same enthusiasm–and brought the same joy to staging Brer Rabbit or Cinderella for preschool children as she brought to any theater stage.
Professor Foust became Official Director and Producer of all Bennett College ceremonies and events, bringing a “show must go on” attitude and being responsible for ensuring that every event went smoothly. Her light heartedness could not belie how seriously she insisted that her shows were rehearsed, well staged, and on time.
When you were under her direction, you knew we were being guided well. In addition to directing plays and other performances, she managed bands and performers, (including her beloved “Boys,” who became Bennett favorites) seeking opportunities for them that would advance their dreams.
She didn’t serve Bennett only in the theater department; she played many important roles on campus. She was elected Faculty Senator for the Department of Humanities and served as the parliamentarian for the Faculty Senate. She was the chair of the Tenure & Promotion Committee and the Nominations committee, and was a member of the QEP General Education Curriculum committee and SACS sub-committee. She advised students in the Alpha Psi Omega Theater Honor Society and the campus modeling troupe.
This spring, Tennille saw a grand vision come to fruition. She helped form and found the Greater Greensboro Theatre Consortium, a collective of theater departments from seven local colleges and universities, with a mission to educate and promote equity through theater. In January, Bennett received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support this work. In April, the collective presented the inaugural Amplify Black Voices Festival—a series of performances focused on the African-American experience and history. It was a triumph for her and for the community. She told a reporter, “Hopefully this is something we will do for years to come.”
And for all her accomplishments as a professor and a professional theater person, it was the woman behind the roles who touched our lives so deeply. Students knew that a desperate call in the wee hours would not go unanswered. She was an unfailing advocate and a fierce promoter of their dreams. Colleagues knew that she would speak up for what was right and just, with an eye to the welfare of the college. Tennille Foust will be long remembered for her youthful spirit, her infectious laugh, her unshakeable faith, and her belief in the best of people.
She cared so deeply, and yet she appeared the very personification of the term “unbothered.” Her catchphrase–that she adopted from The Lion King and used on every possible occasion–was “hakuna matata.” “No worries,” she reminded us–until the very end.
Her last act, like much of her work, played out behind the scenes. It was also her last demonstration of how much she cared for us. It was just like her, wasn’t it? to put her own suffering backstage, so that all we saw, until the last, was her exuberant embrace of life. She wouldn’t have wanted us to worry, but to remember her joy. And we will, though our own hearts are broken by our loss of her.
How can we do justice to her memory and to our grief? Perhaps, when we see a curtain go up–if we can bear to look at a stage without her–we won’t think of her as the missing thespian. We’ll remember that she was the beam of light.
Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy. –Eskimo proverb
As a tribute, Professor Tom Lipscomb has prepared a YouTube playlist of some of Professor Foust’s most special moments with Bennett.
As we navigate the days ahead, let us continue to support each other through our grief.