Two HFC students nominated for prestigious Irene Ryan Excellence in College Acting Scholarship

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Heads shots of Zuri Jamal (l) and Sydney Lane (r)

A representative from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C. nominated two Henry Ford College (HFC) students, Zuri Jamal and Sydney Lane, for the prestigious Irene Ryan Excellence in College Acting Scholarship.

Based on their performances in The Detroit Wall Project, both Jamal and Lane will audition at the regional level for the KCACTF in 2025. HFC is part of the KCACTF Region 3, which includes all of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Western Ohio.

This award is the namesake of Irene Ryan, best known for playing Granny on CBS’s 1962-71 hit sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies for which she was nominated for two Emmys. When she died in 1973, Ryan had no surviving relatives and willed her estate of more than $1 million to start the Irene Ryan Foundation, which rewards scholarships to aspiring actors who participate in the KCACTF, providing “recognition, honor, and financial assistance to outstanding student performers wishing to pursue further education.”

A “certain poetry” to Jamal and Lane’s nominations

The Detroit Wall Project is an original work created by HFC Director of Theatre Dr. John Michael Sefel and HFC students. This sold-out production was based on student research and existing archives about the Detroit Wall, also called the Birwood Wall, which was erected in 1941 to physically separate Black and White homeowners in Detroit’s 8 Mile/Wyoming neighborhood on the sole basis of race. Sefel and his students gleaned information from news reports, the Detroit Historical Society’s Oral and Written History Archive, as well as completing their own surveys and interviews.

“I’m very proud of Zuri and Sydney. They both did phenomenal work in The Detroit Wall Project,” said Sefel. "There's a certain poetry to both Zuri and Sydney being nominated. This was Zuri's last show at HFC, and it was Sydney's first! Zuri is a veteran of the theatre program, and was first nominated for an acting award during The Passage, our first show together. As Zuri and Sydney both receive this recognition, with us full of memories of the great work Zuri has done in the program and great hopes for what Syndey will do in the semesters ahead, there's a wonderful 'passing of the torch' feel to it all."

More about Zuri and Sydney

Zuri Jamal

This is the second straight year lifelong Detroiter Zuri Jamal has been nominated for the Irene Ryan Award. The first time was for her work in Robert Lawson’s The Passage, which HFC produced in the 2022-23 academic year. At the 2024 Region 3 festival, Jamal made it to the semifinals, which is in the Top 36 out of hundreds of actors from throughout the Midwest.

“This is an honor and also shocking. It feels like I’ve been given a second chance, which is really nice,” said Jamal. “To me, it’s amazing to see HFC being recognized for the hard work and talent of its students and its dramaturgy.”

An alumna of Communication and Media Arts High School in Detroit, Jamal attended HFC through Detroit Promise, a tuition-free college program, ensuring that any student graduating from any high school in Detroit will have a tuition-free path to an associate degree or technical certificate, which is paid for by the City of Detroit. Jamal graduated this spring from HFC, earning her associate degree in theatre. This fall, she will continue her education at Wayne State University, where she will major in theatre. Her goal is to become an actress, appearing on the stage and in film.

“Zuri is a ball of positivity and light, always brightening the space she enters. Watching her grow in her craft while excelling academically has been an absolute pleasure. I look forward to the day when I get to see ‘written, directed, and produced by Zuri Jamal’ on a critically acclaimed piece of art,” said Detroit Promise Program Coordinator Mark Yancy, Jr..

“Zuri’s passion for performing is effervescent!”

During her time at HFC, Jamal was involved in several organizations. She was a founding member of the HFC Theatre Club. She was also a member of the HFC National Society of Leadership and Success and the HFC Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK): Alpha Xi Mu.

“Zuri’s passion for performing is effervescent! She bares her soul in every role, no matter how big or small, and has the versatility of a seasoned professional. It's been a genuine pleasure to work with her in different capacities as a student and to see her continue to grow and flourish,” said HFC Director of Media Communication Arts Susan McGraw.

Jamal expressed her admiration for Sefel, whom she considers a mentor.

“Dr. Sefel has done amazing work in the short time he’s been here; he’s redefined theatre at HFC. He involves everyone – it doesn’t matter what your major is, it doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re from – and brings in stories people have never heard before and makes them known,” said Jamal. “I will miss HFC. It’s been home to me in many ways. I plan to help out as an alumna.”

Sydney Lane

Sydney Lane came 30 minutes late to auditions for The Detroit Wall Project in January.

The Henry Ford Early College student was uncomfortable about this. Her initial thought was to turn and walk away, but something compelled her to show up anyway.

“I thought to myself, ‘Maybe they’ll still let you try out,’ and they did. I felt I had nothing to lose,” recalled Lane, a lifelong Detroiter. “Dr. Sefel was very welcoming. They all were. He told me to a grab a script, and I went from there. I’ve now made good friends in the theatre program.”

It would have been much different if Lane had decided to walk away.

“I’m glad I stayed,” she said, laughing. “I carried 24 credits this semester. I needed an outlet, something to keep me motivated. This was it. I’ve always loved talking to people. I’ve always loved connecting with people. We go through life making connections and friends, something that is translated to the stage.”

Feeling a sense of belonging on the stage

Lane’s first foray on the stage was when she was 6. She can’t remember why she was onstage, but she can remember the experience.

“I remember looking out at the audience and I felt this sense of belonging. I fell in love with that arena,” she said. “This is something as a child I knew I wanted to do, something that was bigger than just going to school. I started to see the beginnings of that here at HFC; it’s a very exciting time.”

Lane, who is also a singer, songwriter, producer, guitarist, pianist, and saxophonist, was active in the Junior Performers at Marygrove College in Detroit. The Detroit Wall Project was her first play at HFC.

The Detroit Wall Project was not a traditional play. I just ran with it. This experience is a highlight for me, something I will carry with me for a long time,” she said.

“Sydney quickly became a trusted peer leader among the group. Her commitment to hard work and her ability to understand the nuances of the project elevated not just her own performance, but the entire production. This project wasn't just about ‘putting on a play’ – and Sydney got that from the beginning. The play truly would not have been the same without her,” said Sefel.

Unaware of the magnitude of the Irene Ryan Award

When she learned she was nominated for the Irene Ryan Award, Lane wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the honor.

“I honestly didn’t know what this award was when Dr. Sefel announced Zuri and I were nominated for it. I didn’t think it was such a big deal until Zuri pointed it out to me and told me, ‘This is a big deal!’” recalled Lane. “I can’t think of the words for it! It’s almost surreal. I’m honored, to say the least.”

Like Jamal, Lane called Sefel a mentor.

“He’s a kind, inclusive, spirited guy who’s really helped me a lot with my acting,” said Lane. “He’s been a great mentor to me.”

Now that she has earned her high school diploma from HFEC and her associate degree in liberal arts from HFC, she will probably take the fall semester off to help with Theatre. In early 2025, Lane will transfer to the University of Detroit Mercy, where she will study pre-law.

“I love the arts. I also love the law,” she said. “If I can find a way to get the two disciplines to coexist harmoniously, that would be great.”