Improv Artist Finds New Stage; Mary Thompson Hunt Portrays A Jazz Singer In The Violet Hour From Orlando Theatre Project.

Mary Thompson Hunt doesn't think of herself as an actor.

If you're looking for an entertainer, she'll speak right up. But acting -- acting is something other folks do.

Still, Hunt doesn't let misgivings get in her way. She has ridden thousands of miles on a bicycle to raise money for AIDS charities. She has gone to Africa to teach improv comedy in Cameroon. She has co-hosted a TV show with Regis Philbin, taught improv skills to 460 African-American mayors and interviewed such celebrities as Diahann Carroll and Ben Vereen.

So when director Anne Hering wanted her to audition for a play called The Violet Hour, which Orlando Theatre Project will open Thursday night, Hunt went for it.

"I never auditioned much for plays," says Hunt, 46, who performs five nights a week at Disney's Comedy Warehouse. "But when I read this play, I thought, `I'm supposed to do that.' I read the description of the character, and it was me.

"I made up my mind a long time ago -- I don't want fear to be the reason I don't do anything."

In The Violet Hour, Hunt, who is African-American, will play Jessie Brewster, an elegant jazz singer who has passed for white in Parisian nightlife just after the First World War. When Hering was looking for an actor to play Jessie, she thought of Hunt right off.

"She knocked me out in the auditions," Hering says. "She just nailed it. Her years of stage work give her a presence onstage."

Hunt has been a mainstay at the Comedy Warehouse since 1990, when a director friend tempted her away from a typical New York entertainer's life -- doing improv, snagging an occasional commercial, waiting tables.

She had been performing since she was in seventh grade, when she wangled a way out of class by volunteering to write and act in an anti-drug skit. Somehow, by playing a mother who comes home to find her daughter has overdosed, Hunt had her classmates in stitches.

After that, it was the stage all the way -- from Montclair State University, in her native New Jersey, to improv groups in New York and from there on to Disney. Her husband, artist Jason Hunt, has made a living selling his graphite drawings at Florida's outdoor art shows, and Hunt has become a valued Disneyite -- teaching improv at the old Disney Institute, working in corporate diversity training, doing frequent voiceovers at Epcot. If you hear a female voice making an announcement at Epcot, chances are that it's Hunt.

She loves using her stage skills in other ways beyond performing. But most of all she loves working with other people. That's one of the reasons stand-up comedy is not for her.

"I love being with a team," she says. "I'm a team player."

When she got to co-host then-Orlando Magic player Dennis Scott's cable talk show, she told him, "Basketball is like improvisation. It's not about you. It's about the game."

So acting in a play, the first she has done since college, seems like a natural for Hunt, and working with Orlando Theatre Project has been a logical stretch. Director Hering has performed for years at Pleasure Island's Adventurers' Club, and several other Orlando actors — Christine Decker, Kristian Truelsen, Philip Nolen, Robby Pigott -- work either for the Adventurers' Club or the Comedy Warehouse.

"I have such admiration for Anne, so I don't want to disappoint her," Hunt says. "When I think of actor, I think of Anne Hering, I think of Christine Decker, I think of Philip Nolen -- people who blow me away every time."

Hunt has taken to the role of Jessie, a singer who, Hunt says, "has had a real tough life."

Her background is Harlem just after the First World War -- the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.

"That was Mecca," Hunt says. "It was the place. In some ways it was when civil rights first started. Marcus Garvey was just starting, [W.E.B.] DuBois was just starting. Women didn't even have the right to vote. It was a time of change."

And Jessie Brewster is living on the edge, says Hering -- adapting herself to white reality or black reality, whichever works at the time.

"She has lived on the fence between perception and reality all her life," Hering says. "That's how she copes."

In that way, Jessie may bear only a glancing resemblance to Hunt, a woman who seems particularly grounded in who she is — working nights at the Comedy Warehouse, teaching spinning two days a week at the Y, training for another bike ride to help people with AIDS.

Like Jessie, though, Hunt is drawn to the bright lights of the stage and to everything that goes along with it.

"The other day I was in rehearsal, and I went into where the set was being built. I thought, `I've never been on this stage before. I've always been in the audience.'

"I was hearing the sounds of steps on the stage, and I was smelling the wood. And I got kind of emotional."

Orlando Sentinel - Orlando, FL