Flonnie Anderson knows how to pull a listener into the stories of her life.
She punctuates most of them with humor, rolling her head back and letting out an uproarious, infectious laugh that can brighten a room. Often, she will lean forward and gently touch a person’s hand, establishing a moment of connection that can turn a stranger into a friend.
No wonder she became a legend in local theaters and schools.
For those who may never have the pleasure of sitting down for a talk with the 89-year Anderson, she has come up with the next best thing: Her memoir, “A Fearsome Force of Nature: My Amazing Life in Education and Drama,” was recently published, with Ken Keuffel working as her ghost writer. Keuffel is an occasional correspondent for the Winston-Salem Journal.
Anderson will sign the book on Saturday from 3 to 4:30 p.m., at the Parkland High School auditorium that was named in her honor in 2016.
Anderson’s family — her husband of nearly 70 years Rudy Sr., and her children, Rudy Jr., Deirdre and Mica — nudged her to put a lifetime of stories into book form. It’s a fitting legacy from a woman who used Sophocles and Shakespeare to heal racial divides, along the way becoming one of the city’s civil rights pioneers.
Anderson was the first black actress to perform with the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem in 1956; she helped integrate the theater department at Wake Forest University; she is believed to have started the first black community theater group in the Southeast; and she started Parkland’s first integrated theater program in 1970, having transferred there as a teacher the year Winston-Salem Schools were integrated.
She sat with Keuffel every Thursday for six months, sorting through her memories and telling stories, dating back to her childhood in Winston-Salem through the civil rights era and to her recent recognition as one of Winston-Salem’s Women in the Arts. That recognition includes a public art display at Winston Square Park that also honors Rosemary Harris, Earline King and Nell Davis Britton.
“This kept on until my son, Rudy, said, ‘This is going to be your memoir.’ I hadn’t planned to write anything about myself. But my son was persistent about it,” Anderson recalled. “I hope anyone who reads it will find something to take away from it.”
The book covers Anderson’s development as an actress, director and playwright. She worked closely with the city’s parks and recreation department to stage plays in churches and recreation departments.
For hundreds, if not thousands of children, Anderson is known as Mrs. Anderson or Mrs. “A.”
She taught English and drama at several schools but spent much of her time at the old Anderson High and Parkland High schools.
Anderson was one of the city’s black high schools.
While at Atkins High School she convinced future NFL Hall of Famer Carl Eller to take a part in a school play.
Eller told her he was interested in the role, but rehearsal interfered with his football practice.
“I believe we can work this out,” she told Eller with confidence.
The football coach couldn’t deny Anderson’s persuasive abilities.
Anderson’s students went on to act, work as college administrators and teach. Annette Scippio, a Winston-Salem Council Member, had Anderson for English and drama at Anderson High School.
Though many of her students came from working-class backgrounds, Anderson expected excellence, Scippio said.
Asked about Anderson’s impact, Scippio laughed.
“Oh my,” she said. “You don’t have time to write that story.”
Anderson liked her students to enunciate and project their words. She especially favored kids who expressed their thoughts with a dramatic flair.
“You had to be prepared. You had to be able to share and speak your thoughts. You couldn’t mumble them,” Scippio said. “And you had to be grammatically correct.”
One year, Anderson took her speech team to the Wake Forest University High School Speech Festival. She didn’t tell them that they would be the only black kids at the festival.
The students were judged on such things as after-dinner conversation, original oratory and extemporaneous speaking.
They wowed the judges, winning the highest award.
A beaming Anderson told the students that when they returned to Anderson High School, they needed to act dignified.
“But when you get on the bus (for the ride back to the high school), you can tear it up,” Anderson recalled with a hearty laugh. “Oh, I was beside myself.”
In her book, Anderson talks about the controversy that surrounded the production of the play “Take Me Higher” at Parkland High School in 1970.
Written by her son, Rudy Jr., the play tackled sensitive topics including race and religion. A Moravian pastor interrupted one of the plays because he was disturbed by the content.
The actors in that scene flawlessly incorporated the pastor’s comments into the play.
“If you’re given a certain opportunity, you can soar. And that’s what my students did,” she said.
Anderson’s book also includes some fun anecdotes on her friendship with Dolly McPherson, the first black woman to be a full-time faculty member at Wake Forest, and Maya Angelou.
Through Angelou, Anderson got to know Oprah Winfrey.
Anderson marveled at all the things that has happened to her throughout her life: “My life was like a leaf blowing in the breeze, and all the beautiful things that happened, it wasn’t something I was trying to do.”