Actress Dawn Ursula woke on a January morning to a light snow and the news that school would have a two-hour delay.
She didn’t panic. Morning care was available for her 6-year-old daughter, Julia, and Ursula would still be able to make her 10:30 a.m. rehearsal in the District.
Then it turned out schools would be closed.
She started racing through the child-care checklist. Her husband, Frank Rachal, a webcast producer, couldn’t stay home or take Julia with him. Dragging her to rehearsal was out. Ursula wasn’t calling in, either. Not showing up for work is risky in theater.
“One would have to break a leg,” she would later joke.
Award-winning actresses juggle like everybody else. For Ursula, it’s mother, wife and artist, and not necessarily always in that order.
“I want to be home raising my child as primary caregiver. I also want to be in the theater. I also need alone time when preparing a character. And then, hello, husband, wouldn’t it be nice to be present for you? ... I’m constantly negotiating, evolving, trying to figure it out.”
Figuring it out. Having it all. Following your passion.
So far, here’s what she knows: that it’s always going to be fluid, never perfect, and that she can never let go of the fact that theater is part of who she is.
Her sister-in-law, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., stepped in to help with Julia. Ursula gratefully made the drive from their home in Bowie, then dashed to rehearsal.
She made it on time.
The rehearsal hall in the Takoma neighborhood is an airy space about the size of an elementary school gymnasium. Props for the Kennedy Center production “Lost in the Stars,” which had a short run scheduled the next month, sat in the center of the floor.
In another part of the room Eric Owens, who played leading character Stephen Kumalo, was holding court with his Paul Robeson-like booming voice. Across the way a group of young men was rehearsing lines and struggling to get a pose right.
Director Tazewell Thompson had them do it over and over before, finally, exasperated, he shouted, “Butch it up!”
Ursula was alone, practicing her lines, off to that place she travels when she is working. She had three small roles in “Lost in the Stars,” an opera based on the late Alan Paton’s South African novel “Cry, the Beloved Country.” She played Grace Kumalo and Mrs. Mkize and was a member of the ensemble. She moved easily from one character to the other, slipping in and out of dialect.
“Lost in the Stars” was her first opera in what she calls her “season of firsts.”In her 21 years of chasing her passion, the former state government employee is getting the opportunities that come from sweat and sacrifice and crushing it onstage.
In December, in her first romantic comedy lead, she did a lot of smooching in Round House Theatre’s “Stage Kiss.”
And last fall at Theater J, “Queens Girl in the World,” about a girl coming of age during the civil rights movement, was her first one-woman show.
This February, she received Helen Hayes Award nominations for “Queens” and “Zombie: The American,” a dark comedy by Robert O’Hara, which ran part of May and June of last year at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Winners will be announced May 23. In 2014 she won for her performance in Woolly’s “The Convert.”
In addition to acting with Woolly Mammoth in the District, Ursula works with Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, and she has become a master at stitching together a demanding schedule.
Starting in April she will play the Woman in “Death of a Salesman” and Eunice in “A Streetcar Named Desire” as part of Everyman’s 25th anniversary. The plays will run concurrently with the same company of actors. And, yes, that means they’ve been rehearsing the works that way, too. The plays are being staged over a 10-week span, on different days or often on the same day, splitting the matinee and evening shows.
“The whole process of creating theater and collaborating with others and telling a story together is what I need to do,” says Ursula, who is living many actors’ dream — being able to work full time at her craft.
Jennifer Nelson, senior adviser for artistic programming at Ford’s Theatre, says Ursula is “at the vanguard of progress for actresses of color in the Washington community.”
“It’s difficult to be a full-time actor in every city, and Washington is no exception,” Nelson continues, noting it can be a particular challenge for actresses of color.
Tazewell Thompson says of Ursula: “She is open to any challenge or circumstance involving her character. [And] will go to any length to unlock and solve the puzzle that finds her way into the journey of a role.”
He emailed later to underscore his admiration. “After directing Dawn in ‘Ruined’ [at Everyman], I knew I wanted to have her involved in ‘Lost.’ She didn’t have to audition.”
The passion didn’t reveal itself right away. Ursula’s journey began in high school, in Charlottesville, Va., where she dabbled in debate. That led to reciting poetry, which eventually led to play auditions. A door opened to a deeper part of herself.
But at the University of Virginia, Ursula studied sociology, which, she says, turned out to be good training.
“Sociology allowed [me] to study people and why they behave the way they do and how we as a society accept or reject [certain behaviors].”
After college, she went to work for the state Department of General Services in Richmond and pursued theater part time.
“I was trying to do [theater] during evenings, weekends, holidays and flex time,” she says. “Luckily, I had a really supportive boss.”
That boss happened to also be a motivational speaker and was always in Ursula’s ear saying she should do what she loved. And she did, earning her Equity Card performing with TheatreVirginia, a company in Richmond that closed in 2002. . After a while she saw little by little that maybe her boss was right. Acting was taking over her life, personally and professionally.
“I realized [that] I wanted to do the acting. I was getting so busy, taking so much time away from my job.”
It was straining her marriage, too. Her then-husband objected to an acting career.
“He wanted a stable second income, and he wanted me to have job stability,” Ursula recalls.
They were reasonable requests, she says, but by then reason didn’t stand a chance.
She quit her job and her marriage.
She and Frank Rachal met on the set of a graduate student film in the District in the late ’90s and later married. Then Julia was born.
So here she sits in Takoma’s Busboys and Poets restaurant, with everything in her lap: the work she loves, her daughter, a good marriage. Why then, this pang of restlessness, sometimes?
Maybe some of it is just fatigue.
“Exhaustion is the new rested,” she says as she waits for her mug of apple cider after rehearsal.
Of course, many actors work outside the industry to stay afloat. Working full time as an actress doesn’t mean the money is rolling in.
“I’m fortunate that I’m able to narrate audiobooks for the blind for the Library of Congress. I’m a [government] employee again,” she says.
Maybe it’s the challenges of motherhood and marriage.
Mostly, though, she thinks the restlessness is because creativity demands leaving your comfort zone and being on a constant quest for growth.
She thinks about working behind-the-scenes to help make theater audiences more diverse. (The issue of inclusion is never settled business, as was demonstrated in December when Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins quit an off-Broadway production of the classic “Mother Courage” and wrote an open letter stating that white directors often impose their vision of blackness to the detriment of black actors.)
Navigating such issues takes diplomacy and being unafraid to speak up, Ursula says. Above all, though, what matters is the work and pushing for the growth.
Sometimes she thinks about creating her own one-woman show. Or even teaching.
Whatever happens, her stage work must always remain.
“I am content, and I am not content,” Ursula says. “I am in a constant place of restless gratitude.
“This is my career, and I do not take its fruitfulness for granted. This is a fickle business, and it does not strive to be fair or predictable.”
“I’ve never surfed before, but I imagine it’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying,” which aptly describes her career these days.
On the last weekend of “Lost in the Stars,” Rachal and Julia are in the audience.
Their family isn’t any different from others, he says. They are two working parents trying to make life work.
“Actually it never feels like I’m married to an actor,” he adds. “I’m married to someone that is extremely dedicated to their craft (and good at it).”
Yet, he admits, “I will occasionally lean over to the person sitting next to me and let them know that’s my wife they’re cheering.”
It’s the kind of affirmation Ursula appreciates.
“I don’t have stardom aspirations,” she says. “But I want to live well, and I see that happening. ... I want my daughter seeing me do that which brings me the most fulfillment.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how Dawn Ursula earned her Equity Card. She earned the card working in a production of “Gypsy” with TheatreVirginia in Richmond. The theater company closed in 2002.
Abdul Ali is the author of “Trouble Sleeping,” a collection of poems. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.