“You know, I remember going to an industry party with Freda Payne,” Los Angeles-based playwright Don B. Welch recalls. “She was introducing me to people and an actress came over and Freda said, ‘Oh, this is my friend, Don Welch. He’s a writer.’ And the actress said, ‘Oh, television or film?’, and I said, ‘None of those, theater’. And she laughed and said, ‘Well, good luck on that because this is a film and television town.’ and walked away with her drink. I remember standing there, looking at her, and Freda looked a little embarrassed, like, ‘Oh my God’, and didn’t know what to say. And I remember thinking to myself as she walked away, ‘I’m going to make you respect theater and you’re going to work for me.’ and she did. I never said anything to her. You know why? Because it wasn’t necessary.”
Don B. Welch is the first name that is spoken in Los Angeles when you bring up theater. His sold-out plays are flooded in attendance with the who’s who of Hollywood. His casts have included Loretta Devine, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tatyana Ali, Essence Atkins, Kenny Lattimore, Ginuwine, Kelly Price, Marla Gibbs, Flex Alexander, Shanice, Ernest L. Thomas, the late Mary Wilson, Ledisi, Malinda Williams, Darius McCrary, Eva Marcille, Dawnn Lewis, Dorien Wilson, and Jackée Harry to name a few.
Nonetheless, it’s the early years that we want to reminisce about. When our zoom call connects, Don is sitting on his sofa with all kinds of memorabilia hanging on the walls behind him. The autographed ‘Waiting To Exhale’ movie poster may just be my favorite. He spends the first 10 minutes checking on me and asking how I am, how my transition from Los Angeles to Atlanta is going, how my mother is, and what’s new in my life. Then he wraps up by telling me to stop playing and start auditioning for acting roles. That’s the Don that I have known for the last 15 years. For myself, like a small circle of actors in the Hollywood scene, Don is like a big brother; not afraid to tell you like it is and always pushing to see you succeed in whatever you do. It’s a quality that he says comes from his parents.
Don was a charismatic kid who grew up in the Wynnefield community of West Philadelphia. He was the one who was summoned to stand on the stairs and perform when family or friends would come over. In his mind, he was on the road to becoming the next Michael Jackson and have penpals write to him in Right On! Magazine, like Michael. No really, that was his aspiration. He loved to sing, dance, and make people smile. He didn’t know what he was doing was called entertainment, he knew that it was what he wanted from his life. Those staircase performances would lead him to sing “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” at his church’s Easter Service. The applause and cheers of the congregation led to church members greeting a young Donald and his family after service. As they poured out their praises of his talent, his ambition to repeat that reaction grew.
Don would go on to enter and win singing competitions all around the city. At 15 years of age, he would win a Philadelphia singing competition, the Pennsylvania state competition, and was flown to New Orleans where he ranked in the top 3 for the National Vocal Scholarship Contest. With the victories still fresh in his atmosphere, 5 record deals were on the table as well. However, none of these allowed his authenticity to exist as an artist. He turned them all down. He knew at a young age that if he was going to enter this arena, it would be on his own terms. His ambition would never outweigh his integrity. Then in a turn of direction, his love for theater would land him on stage in a play called ‘Miss Lizzie’s Royal Cafe’ written, directed, and produced by legendary singer, Adam Wade.
SUAVV: This was your break into the theater world. What was that like for you going from singing and performing to stage performances and acting?
Don: I was one of the leads and it was at the Kornacopia Dinner Theater in Philadelphia. I wasn’t familiar with his music. When I got the role, my mom said, ‘Oh, I know who Adam Wade is. He was known for the song “Ruby”.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, well, he’s the writer and director and he just cast me.’ One night, I was on stage and I looked out at a packed theater. My scene was coming up next. But before I did my scene, I remember looking around and watching all these eyes, from the audience, on the cast, and knew they were about to be on me as well. I looked over and I saw Adam Wade, watching us. And I said to myself, ‘Ummm, Adam wrote, directed, and produced this. I can do the same thing.’ That was the light bulb that went off in my head, and I said, ‘well, why not?’
SUAVV: And that “Why not” mentality came from your parents as a kid. Having parents and a circle that is supportive of your goals and ambitions is extremely important. That was something my mom was really big on. She was super supportive of whatever we wanted to do.
Don: We had that kind of a household where we were encouraged to do and be who we wanted to be. My brother, Vernon, chose a different path. Everything with him has always been mechanical and technical. I was always musically inclined and loved entertaining. My parents, (my mom, my stepdad, and grandmother) were very much into letting my brother and me do exactly what we wanted to do in the world. It was a great foundation to have and it allowed me to have this innate ability about myself, I felt as though I could do anything. What they did was co-sign it. ‘Oh, you want piano lessons? Oh, you want voice lessons? Well, let’s get a teacher. Let’s go take private lessons. Oh, you want to be a boy scout? Let’s do that. Oh, you want to lead the youth fellowship at the church? Okay. Go for it.’ With all of those things happening at a very young age, my family never really said no. I’d just went for it. I did not wait for opportunities.
SUAVV: Even for you now, how you treat people who come up under you, you also give them that same encouragement. You’re quick to say ‘Don’t wait for an opportunity, take control.’ And that feels like how you push everyone else around you.
Don: That’s right! I try and I tell actors, singers, dancers, and models, all of them that come to me, I say, “Listen, you want to be bigger than me. Just go for it.” The opportunities that the younger people have today in the industry are completely different than what I had when I started out. So I’ve always said, “No! You gotta go for it.” There are a lot of times people have the talent, but they don’t have anyone to say to them, “Seriously, you can really do it! I will help you without you having to pay me back in any kind of way.”
SUAVV: And that’s rare. Especially in Hollywood. It’s rare to the point where it makes people unsure and uneasy.
Donald: I get it all the time. When there’s a new actor, male or female that come into my life and ask for advice. I give it to them. They’re thinking ‘Okay, this guy is TOO nice. Is he trying to make money off of me? Does he want to take credit for my career?’ My answer to all of them is, “I don’t want any of that. I’m just trying to show you that everybody in this town ain’t full of shit.” There are some people who really, really want to see you succeed. But the problem is most people don’t want to put in the work.
SUAVV: I noticed when I was there acting, I would say to myself, “You have to get past yourself, Rashod.” You always talk yourself out of opportunities and out of potential work. You find yourself focusing on the negative and you start making excuses like: “This is going to cost too much and it’s going to take up too much of my time!” You start setting your own limitations and boundaries without realizing it.
Donald: Yeah. And when that happens, if you don’t have the right support circle around you, you begin to feel, maybe this is not for me. Maybe I can’t do it. But you gotta have someone to be your cheerleader other than yourself. I’m my biggest cheerleader. But I still realize that I need a cheerleader who will “check me” when needed.
When Don took that leap of faith and put on his first production, ‘Take it to the Lord or Else’, he was able to hire his first Hollywood actress; the fiery Sanford and Son star, LaWanda Page, better known as “Aunt Esther”. She would become his first Hollywood cheerleader and dear friend. He knew at that point, there was no turning back. He presented his play at the same theater he was hired as an actor years before. It ran for 2 months. The play was sold out every weekend. When it came time to renew the contract at the Kornacopia Theater, he looked at the money the theater was making from his show and decided to rent theater space at a legitimate theater in Downtown Philadelphia.
It was the famous Walnut Street Theater on Broad Street. Don himself, paid for the insurance, hired the actors, and ended up selling out the production every weekend that it ran. Also, at this time, he continued working his corporate job at The Wall Street Journal newspaper office in Philadelphia. When WSJ decided to close the Philadelphia office, they made Don an offer that seemed too good to be true. They wanted to relocate him to New York City so that he could continue working for the publication and produce his plays in the Mecca of Theater, New York City on the weekends.
Once again, Don refused what appeared to be a “golden goose” offer. Instead, he took the severance package and continued producing his plays in Philadelphia under his newly established company Don B. Welch Productions. The production company was a new level of business that Don didn’t fully understand. So knowing that he would have to develop the legalities of a production company, he turned to a business owner whom he knew for help. This is where he learned another life lesson in business.
Donald: Let’s be clear, this guy’s company had nothing to do with entertainment. I think he was selling hats and scarves. He was African-American. I said to him: “Hey, I’m trying to open up my entertainment company, and I don’t know how to go about getting the TIN# (number) for filing this paperwork.” He said, ‘Ooh, are you sure you want to do that?’ And I’m like, ‘well, yes I am. I know you have your own company. So, if you could just give me some pointers, I’ll be good.’ He hemmed and hawed and found every excuse not to help me. So, I went to someone else, another persuasion, and this guy sat down with me and opened up his book of knowledge and showed me everything I needed to do in order to open up my company. No questions asked, he just did it. All I could say was “Thank you!” I realized at this moment that sometimes, your own people, won’t offer you assistance. You see, SOME are so worried that you may just pass them on the way up, that they can’t even give you simple advice or information. Isn’t that sad? I knew, at that moment, that I would never be one of those persons. But that shit angered me! I had to go out of my own community to seek the information that I needed to start a company.
SUAVV: I find myself having these conversations with people that are starting businesses very often. I tell them, sometimes, you have to look outside of what’s comfortable and talk to people who have already done it; regardless of their persuasion. You’d be surprised that there will be some people receptive of what you’re seeking.
Donald: Yeah. I don’t understand that, but then again, I do understand it. We come from a people that were placed in the line of oppression and pitted against each other for control. People like the guy I spoke about earlier, had no idea of the potential damage he could have been inflicting upon me. If I weren’t strong enough, there’s no telling what I would have done or even if I would have opened up a company at all. And I want to be careful how I say this because I don’t want anyone reading this to feel that I’m saying only Black folks do this. No, no, no, no, no, no. I’m giving you an example of what was done to me.
SUAVV: Which leads to my next question. Why did you relocate to Los Angeles when you were doing so well in your hometown of Philadelphia? How did that happen?
Donald: Well, first of all, there was a little thing called “fear”. But we were neighbors with megastar Will Smith and his family. He and his dad were very instrumental in my decision to move. He said to me: “Don, when you’re ready to move into areas of television and film, come to LA, I got you.” People say things like this all the time, so, I wasn’t so sure he was serious. But he was. I thought it over, took my time, and in 2000 I made the move. I also wanted to wait and make sure that my mother was taken care of. I gave up my apartment on Rittenhouse Square in Philly, but, I didn’t stop doing the theater productions. I said, ‘No, I’ll fly my ass back and forth until I get settled in LA.’ You see, I stayed booked! I traveled from New Haven, Connecticut all the way down to St. Petersburg, Virginia, show after show, week after week. I even rented Greyhound buses to transport the cast, crew, and musicians many times. The money was crazy! However, I was ready for a change. So, Hollywood, here I come. I’ll tell you something I never told anyone else. The day before I moved out of my apartment, I sat by myself and looked around in this empty apartment and I got so emotional and broke down. I asked myself, ‘Are you sure this is what you want, Donald Welch? Are you doing the right thing?’ And then that inner voice said, ‘Yes, you are.’ It was frightening. But, I knew I had to do it. I actually ended up living with Lawanda Page, in her home, for 8 months. She didn’t want me to leave, but it was time for me to get my own spot.
Thirty-two productions later, and that Right On! Magazine dream under his belt, Don B. Welch has cemented his name in the Los Angeles Theater Community. He now has his hands in television with several filmed projects on Netflix, Hulu, and most recently broke through another glass ceiling. After meeting film producer Brett Dismuke of Allblk.tv and WE tv, he believed so much in Don as a writer and director, that he greenlit 5 productions from 2009-2020. The latest being ‘Love On A Two Way Street’ starring Vanessa Williams, Dorien Wilson, Amin Joseph, Kelly Price, Kiki Haynes, and others. Don became the first playwright to stream a production on Pay-Per-View.
Don was also signed to Random House Publishing in New York and after his first two novels, The Bachelorette Party and In My Sister’s House, he began working on his third book, “All Things in Time”, the autobiography of his life. It’s easy for one on the outside, looking in, to say “Don is doing the damn thing”. But those peaks didn’t come without valleys. Three years ago, Don lost his biggest cheerleader, his confidant, and his leading lady… his mother, Gloria Welch Pollitt. I’ve met Ms. Gloria and spent moments with her numerous times over the years, so I knew how close Don was with his mother. When I heard of her passing, I actually hesitated calling him. I had no idea what to say. I knew she had been ill for quite some time and he had been traveling back and forth monthly to assist in her care with his brother. When he began writing his memoir, he decided that he would open the book with the passing of his mother. He felt getting this moment in his journey out of the way first, would be the only way he could complete the book.
Don: When you’re writing an autobiography of your life, someone may ask, ‘Well, why now?’ I say, “Well, why not now?” Besides, I don’t want anyone else trying to document my legacy or my story when I’m dead. Also, I’m old as shit. (laughing).
SUAVV: (laughing and shaking my head because that’s Don) That’s the thing, I know you did, Don. But, Let me say this, your loyalty is impeccable. You’re loyal to those who are loyal to you. And you’re loyal to those who aren’t loyal to you. I’ve always recognized this about you. I know when you’re speaking, there’s a point and a purpose behind it. I know, personally, it’s not malicious.
Donald: You’re right. It’s never malicious. I could tell you stories of disappointments I’ve received from people that I thought, for years, had genuine love for me, only to find out I was being used. But it’s all good. Because I know a man who sits high and looks low. Besides, it ain’t my job to show no revenge. I just sit back and rock a while.
SUAVV: That’s a big thing. Especially in LA; how you treat people is so important. Because as fast as you go up, you can fall back down.
Donald: And this is a town about relationships. You better understand and know this.
Right before the covid pandemic happened, the legendary movie director, producer, and actor Bill Duke had been attending Don’s plays for years and when he approached Don with the idea of turning screenplays into feature films and creating a partnership, Don talked it over with his business partner Chris Dabney, and the trio created an Atlanta-based film company, GLO-MAR Films (a combination of Don’s mother and Grandmothers names).
Don has had amazing opportunities because he has always played the Hollywood game correctly. Also, he treats his actors and staff with respect and dignity. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you are in a Don B. Welch rehearsal and not performing to the best of your ability, you will definitely hear about it. There will be some fussing and a few choice words, but no personal name-calling. Even after being chewed out, when rehearsal is over, he would act as if nothing happened and invite you out to lunch. He leaves the work at work and the personal relationships outside. Don is a coach and he finds the method that his actors need to “get into character”.
And that’s the thing, it takes this, because people go to LA with the mentality of their image. And when you get into a production, your image doesn’t matter. No one cares who you are. It’s about the character that you’re portraying and how you bring that character to life. Sometimes, you have to step out of yourself and your comfort zone.
Donald: At the end of the day, when you choose this industry as your profession, understand this; It ain’t gonna be easy. You’re going to receive more no’s than yes’. You get out of it what you put into it. No matter what. Just do the work. And for those who believe in God, lean on your faith. He will pull you through every time. I am a walking, breathing witness to this. And always treat people the way you want to be treated.
What’s next for Don B. Welch? A film called BabyGirl which explores Black and Brown girls who have been abducted and sold into sex trafficking.