Alum spotlight: Dr. Karen Turner Ward (MFA ’83)

woman with flower in hair, pearls and sparkly earrings singing into vintage microphone

Karen Turner Ward,Ph.D., MFA in Performance 1983

While Karen getting her Master of Fine Arts at VCU, Dr. Kenneth Campbell (then Department Chair) was one of the judges for Hampton University’s entry into the American College Theatre Festival. While he was there, the Hampton’s Chair mentioned they had positions open in the department and Campbell thought Karen would be a great candidate. Karen had also applied to SUNY and really wanted to be in New York. However, when she called her mom for advice, her mother asked, “Would you rather have seven feet of snow or seven feet of water?” Karen replied, “I want the beach, Mama!”

Karen went to the interview at Hampton, “out of respect for Dr. C,” but when she got there, “I fell in love with campus. Thirty seven years later, I’m still here.” She explains why she’s so happy, “The academic world became my cup of tea because of the freedom it gives me to pursue artistic ventures.”

Karen and her daughter Jade

And Karen has certainly taken advantage of that freedom. She’s been able to continue acting, leaving campus for six to eight weeks for productions. One of the early shows was at UVA’s Summer Heritage Theatre, where she acted in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill under George Black’s direction. When Black later took the job as Artistic Director at the Virginia Museum Theatre, he brought Karen and the show there, which was so successful, “it allegedly brought VMT out of the red.”

Karen has also toured with musical groups including the R&B band The Main Ingredient; their big hit was “Everybody Plays the Fool”. Karen wrote the music and book for Mama Dee’s Girls, which played 22 cities in nine weeks. She had a small role in the tour, but also got to hear her songs sung by tour mates like Jennifer Holliday (“Dream Girls”), Philip Michael Thomas (“Miami Vice”), Ali Wilson (The Temptations) and Charlie Wilson (Gap Band).

Karen has written several other shows and continues to act. She’s plays the judge in a web series entitled “Come Midnight” and has directed some of the episodes. Her daughter, Jade Banks, lives in California where she stars in and writes most of the show.

Karen’s current position is the Old Dominion Endowed Chair, where she finds ways to engage the faculty in artistic ventures. She still enjoys teaching at the college level, “I tell everyone, it’s a job that will keep you young forever. The students keep you abreast of what’s going on, plus I love seeing them go out and do great things.”

BTW, call her Doctor Ward. Karen received her Ph.D. in Communication from Regent University in 1993.

Compiled by Liz Hopper (professor emeritus) and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the March 2022 Theatre Alumni newsletter