Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.


Dulé Hill is an actor, dancer, and the host of the new PBS series, “The Express Way” – a tour of artistic traditions across the country. We talked about senior-citizen burlesque dancers, bluegrass experimentation by Amythyst Kiah, and the “West Wing” actor’s time in Hindman, Kentucky.

Dulé Hill (Credit: Larkin Donley / Joe Bressler; CALICO).

Olivia Weeks, Deesmealz: Can you just give a little bit of your bio and then tell me how you found yourself hosting “The Express Way”?

Dulé Hill: I am a father to two children – a 19 year old and a four-and-three-quarters year old. I’m a husband to my lovely wife and producing partner Jazmyn Simon. I started in show business young, I was going to dance school at the age of three. I was there because my brother and my cousins were there. My mom was a ballet teacher there. I eventually did a show called “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” on Broadway. And then I did a show called “The West Wing,” and then a show called “Psych.” And now I’m doing a show called “The Express Way.”

The arts have been the journey of a lifetime for me – from the age of three until now. I’m doing “The Express Way” because a friend of ours, Chris Howard, came to Jasmine and I with the idea of traveling around the country documenting different cultures of dance. And then we connected with Danny Lee over at CALICO, who had the genius to really expand it beyond that, and tap into all forms of artistic expression. And that's when we really felt we had something special. And then from there we were able to connect with PBS to go on this journey throughout the country, seeing how art is creating change. 

I've really had a wonderful time traveling throughout the country. You know, oftentimes we think, in order to make a change, we have to have this huge footprint, we have to be Dwayne Johnson or George Clooney or somebody of that magnitude. But really the gift that is inside of us is the ability to affect change. I always say if we can get a billion people to move a billion stones, then we can move a mountain. And that's what this show is all about.

OW: Yeah, that's a really beautiful way to describe it. Just for readers who haven't seen the show, can you talk through some of your favorite examples of the stories it tells?

DH: Oh, there's so many. I was able to meet a blind painter out in Texas and see all these beautiful, beautiful, magnificent paintings. And he does it without having any sight so he's able to create something visual without having the ability to see. I met a really phenomenal hip hop dancer who was deaf. I've met a group of senior citizens who are burlesque dancers in Chinatown in San Francisco. They’re using their shows and their performances to keep the history of their neighborhood alive, but also to show that you can be vibrant and full and sexy and live whole lives in your senior years. Oftentimes people try to dictate to you what your story is going to be. But they're saying no, we're going to take control of our story and we're going to live our lives to the fullest and it's so inspiring. I met an incarcerated playwright in Chicago, who is using his words to get beyond the confines of the walls around him. I met a first generation Syrian American who was using the music of funk and soul to be able to highlight the plight of his country. I met Doug Naselroad right there in Appalachia, who is a world renowned luthier who is taking his skill set and teaching recovering addicts how to make stringed instruments. I mean, the list goes on – so many people throughout this journey touched me in a deep and profound way.

Doug and Dillon play their instruments for the town radio show (Credit: Larkin Donley / Joe Bressler; CALICO).

OW: As preparation for this interview, the episode I got to watch is the Appalachia episode, which you touched on a little bit at the end of that answer. Can you talk about what unites the three stories in the Appalachia episode? How would you describe its theme?

DH: I think it's about how music connects people, and how music can build bridges. You have Doug Naselroad who's creating the instruments to make the music, and through that process alone, he's created a pathway for people to reclaim their lives and find purpose and direction. I met Joe Troop and Larry Bellorin, who are people coming from different places in the world, but meeting at this intersection of music and being able to show the unity and the beautiful blend that can happen there when we lean into each other. And then you have Amythyst Kiah who is phenomenal and so inspiring because she's using music to create space for herself and people like her in bluegrass where they’ve historically been left out. Music is something that takes you beyond the surface, beyond our cognitive abilities, and helps us relate to things we otherwise wouldn’t.

Amythyst Kiah on the porch (Credit: Larkin Donley / Joe Bressler; CALICO).

OW: Yeah, I think that theme of connection was really clear throughout the episode and in all the stories. One thing I was thinking about, though – partially because the Deesmealz focuses its coverage on rural America – is that rural places are really often otherized by poverty-porn kinds of lenses. I was wondering if you were thinking about that at all in the depiction of Hindman, Kentucky, which appears as a really depressed place where there’s just this one little ray of hope, in the form of the school of luthiery.

DH: It wasn't at the forefront of my mind. I wouldn't say it was in my mind at all because I was really trying to embrace it. I went into Hindman open to new experiences. I mean, I wasn't sure what I was going to experience, being a Black man going into Kentucky. But I was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and how warm and how engaging people were with me. It wasn’t about the poverty of the area. There's poverty all over the country, in all kinds of different communities. 

OW: Throughout that process of just trying to remain open to all the places that you traveled to, do you feel like your perspective on this country shifted in any big ways?

DH: I think what I realized is that we all are having our struggles that we're trying to overcome. If you take the time to listen to people, you start to understand the humanity of people, you start to feel that you have the same heart as other people. And that's when you start to really connect and hopefully be able to solve some issues.

What I really appreciated there in Hindman was learning about the drug treatment court there. The idea that people who are dealing with addiction are not criminals who should be tossed out of society, they’re people who are battling an addiction. If we lean in as a system to help them then we actually can make, not only their lives better, but the entire community a better place. Instead of just locking people up and throwing away the key. No, let's give them the tools to be able to find their way and reclaim their lives. I love the humanity in that. And that’s what I saw there in Kentucky. That's what we need throughout the country.


This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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