Friday, September 4, 2015

Actor has encore, with a message, at Central

By Linda Conner Lambeck

BRIDGEPORT -- Ana Goncalves, 19, wasn't familiar with Michael Jai White's work. All she knew is that he is an actor, and like her, attended Central High School.

That was enough for Goncalves to bound off the bleachers to take a picture of White as he advised students at his alma mater Thursday to combine their street smarts with academic smarts for future success.

"You know how to sum up people fast. You have to know who you are dealing with. You can sum up people fast. Am I right?" White shouted into a microphone during an assembly. "Combine that with what you know now, with academic knowledge, and the world is yours."

White, 42, graduated from Central in 1982. He went on to become an actor and martial artist. His first big role was in the 1995 HBO film, "Tyson," portraying the boxer, Mike Tyson. He starred opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in "Universal Soldier: The Return" and Steven Seagal in "Exit Wounds." His latest role was as mob boss 'Gambol' in "The Dark Knight."

He spent the day at Central, talking to students and signing autographs as part of Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies Day, sponsored by the Community Health Network of Connecticut. The event included activities to promote healthy nutrition and an active lifestyle.

A poster taped to the school office also declared it Michael Jai White Day.

"Wow, there are a lot of memories in this school, a lot of memories," said White, whose tenure at Central had a rocky start. "I was an angry kid," he admitted. He skipped classes a lot and was suspended numerous times. Several years after he left Central, a throwing star -- a ninja-style weapon -- remained lodged into Central's auditorium ceiling thanks to White.

White credits Andrew Karcich who was his social studies teacher and went on to become Central's principal, and a visiting speaker -- a Latino lawyer whose name he can't remember -- with helping change his attitude.

"I don't remember his name. I just remember him as a well-dressed man in a suit who came into my school and showed me there was another way. That I could change the road I was on. He absolutely resonated with me," White recalled. "He came here and spoke and just started the wheels turning. He got me on a good road. I think a lot of these kids are hungry for some kind of change. They don't know where its going to come from," he said.

White said he began to channel the same kind of qualities that might have served him well as a gang leader into school work instead. He eventually would be given an award for self-improvement at a Central awards assembly. "I remember I was clowning around, not paying attention. They called my name and that shut me up," said White.

At Central, White tried to prompt the same reaction among today's students, surprising a couple of them judged as most academically improved with signed t-shirts.

White's first acting experience was on the Central High stage. He had a bit part in "Anything Goes" in his senior year. After high school he went to Housatonic Community College, then Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He returned to substitute teach at Central and Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven while auditioning for parts in New York before landing his first major role. His next film, "Why Did I Get Married II?" is being filmed in the Bahamas.

He told students he "represents" the city where he grew up everywhere he goes.

"You have to have pride in where you come from. You also have to know the world is yours. I started here in Central High," he said.

White now lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with his wife, 5-month-old daughter and a son in college.

Gilbert Valentin, 15, a Central sophomore who won an academic challenge that gave him the opportunity to ride in a limo with White, called the experience cool. "I think he is a true role model because he came from here. If he can do it, I could definitely do it. It's an inspiration," he said.