An art form such as theater has the power to move you emotionally. It can transport you to another decade, to a bustling big city with bright lights, or to a meager apartment on the outskirts of town. Live theater challenges its audience to imagine a whole new world, brought to life by the grace and talent of actors who use storytelling to hold an audience’s attention until the curtains close.
For actress Danielle Moné Truitt, who stars as Sgt. Ayanna Bell in the new NBC drama series “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” the theater is akin to a spiritual experience, one that takes her back to her time growing up in Sacramento, singing at church and performing onstage.
“I truly feel like theater and church are very much the same in the sense that there’s a connection between the people that are there,” Truitt says. “I really love that interaction with the audience, and I love helping the audience reimagine the space to be whatever it is that you want it to be.”
Her talent for performing was nourished at Sacramento State, where during her freshman year, Truitt says, she was advised by theater and dance professor Juanita Rice to switch majors from psychology to theater arts.
It’s a decision that would later propel her onto bigger local stages such as Broadway at Music Circus (“Hair”), B Street Theatre (“Safe at Home: The Jackie Robinson Story”) and Sacramento Theatre Company (“A Raisin in the Sun”) before she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in TV and film.
And although she splits her time between New York and LA these days, Truitt, who was named Miss Black Sacramento 2000, says she still has love for her hometown—and, of course, Jimboy’s Tacos.
“You Are A Force of Nature.”
Truitt recalls performing in plays such as “Dreamgirls” and “The Mountaintop” when she learned that groundbreaking film director and screenwriter John Singleton (“Boyz n The Hood,” “Poetic Justice”) wanted her to screen test for the lead role of his new BET television series, “Rebel.”
In 2017, Truitt played Rebecca “Rebel” Knight, an Oakland police officer who turned private investigator after her brother was killed by law enforcement.
During her time spent with the iconic director and producer, she says she learned a lot about confidence.
“The first day that I met him when we did our screen test, he was like, ‘You that bitch!’” Truitt says, laughing. “That’s what he would tell me, and he also told me I was a force of nature. So I try to remember that. ‘You’re not just an actor. You are a force of nature.’ I always carry that with me, whatever I do, wherever I go.”
Truitt credits Singleton (now deceased) for changing her life and giving her an opportunity when she felt nobody else understood the kind of actor that she was. He inspired Truitt to be unapologetically herself while fellow cast members such as Mykelti Williamson (“Forest Gump,” “Con Air”) and Giancarlo Esposito (“The Mandalorian,” “Breaking Bad”) taught her about acting for the camera versus a live audience.
“I’m coming straight from theater doing my first big TV thing and I learned so much from them,” Truitt says. “I learned a lot about stillness and about the eyes being really important and holding your emotion in your eyes more than your face all the time.”
Truitt says she gleaned a lot on the set of “Rebel,” although the show lasted only one season. Still, it didn’t stop her from stepping into a new role when executive producer Dick Wolf asked her to star as Sgt. Ayanna Bell in the new spin-off, “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” opposite actors Christopher Meloni and Dylan McDermott.
What captivated Truitt about Sgt. Bell was her resilience and the inner conflicts Bell navigates as a Black woman who rose through the ranks in law enforcement and who also happens to be gay. It’s also not lost on Truitt that playing a cop on television comes with stigma in the wake of tragedies such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people wrongfully killed by police.
“I’m glad I get to play a character who, yes, she’s a cop, but she still understands the world she’s living in. She also has been up against racism and so many things that she’s had to overcome and she has a heart for the community and wants to do the right thing,” Truitt says. “I actually find it honorable to be able to play these roles and be in a show and with a company that is listening to what the people are saying. It’s important, if you’re going to keep a show like ‘Law & Order’ going and expand the franchise, that you have your hand on the pulse of what’s going on, and you’re telling the stories from a realistic perspective.”
The season finale of “Law & Order: Organized Crime” aired June 3, with episodes now streaming on Hulu. It was quickly renewed for a second season, slated to air this fall.
“Feet in the Mud, Always.”
When she was fresh out of Sac State, Truitt had been hired to work at a local bank when she received a call from the producing artistic director of B Street Theatre, Buck Busfield. She had previously auditioned for Busfield. Now, he was offering to pay her $250 a week to rehearse as the lead in his play.
“He was like, I know it’s not as much as the bank. But would you want it?” Truitt recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a banker. I want to be an actor. So I’ll take it.’ It was just kind of serendipitous. It was like a sign that I was on the right path.”
Truitt quit her job at the bank and dove headfirst into the B Street company, where she’s been an active member since the early 2000s. Her first play with B Street was “The Beggars’ Strike” for its family series, followed by a handful of children’s plays, a one-woman show. Most recently, she played the role of Jo in “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” in 2018. She credits B Street for giving her a start in professional theater.
“She was clearly the real deal, and that was obvious in early rehearsal,” Busfield says. “After we started working with her, it became apparent that she’s one of those rare finds that comes along, and we’ve had so many actors come through. We’ve hired over 1,000 people at B Street over the years between actors and staff.”
But Truitt is also a fan of tough love, and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, she decided that even B Street needed to do better when it came to amplifying the talents of Black artists and other people of color.
So she called Busfield and asked him how she could help lead the effort to create a platform that showcased the true diversity of Sacramento talent. With the help of B Street executive producer Jerry Montoya and equity, diversity and community inclusion director Latrice Madkins, the “Re-Imagine” social justice series was created.
“I’m one of the people who was out there on the streets. I was protesting, everything, and then ‘Re-Imagine’ was birthed from that, too,” Truitt says. “I’m definitely a person who is against the misuse of police force, and I believe there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in our police departments and in our communities to be able to come together and have peace.”
Truitt says she also recognizes Sacramento’s long reputation as one of the most diverse cities in the United States but says there’s always room to improve. Busfield agrees.
“Danielle just said, ‘Look, let me help you do better.’ And it’s not like we had to pivot hard into something we didn’t already know how to do. We just had to do it with a different awareness,” Busfield says. “It’s another thing that makes her special: her understanding of where she came from and her love of the community. We see that, and everybody else does, too.”
The series was a virtual showcase hosted on Zoom last year throughout the pandemic. Madkins, who went to Sac State with Truitt, says the “Re-Imagine” team is working toward bringing the social justice series, which features BIPOC talents such as actors, poets, dancers and musicians, onstage in the near future.
“I appreciate that she has a commitment to the Sacramento community, and she also supports some of the actors and artists who are here who have reached out to her,” Madkins says. “Even at Sac State, you still have students right now who are in touch with Danielle since this pandemic. She’s just absolutely amazing.”
With all her success in TV, film and onstage, Truitt says she stays humble by remembering what fellow actor Roger Guenveur Smith once told her while he was directing her in a play when her career was just taking off: “Feet in the mud, always. Keep your feet in the mud.”
“Which means, stay grounded and hold onto your roots. I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t give back and care about where I came from,” Truitt says. “Sacramento is growing. It’s becoming more cultural, but I feel like it still has a ways to go, and if I can be a part of amplifying the voices of BIPOC people and making our city a little more cultured and diverse with the type of art that people are seeing, I want to be a part of that. I’ve always been proud of where I’m from, so it just wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t giving back in some kind of way.”