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My name is Alani iLongwe. 

I was born Carlton Byrd Jr. 


“Carlton” (meaning ‘sower of seeds’ in some languages) was taken from my biological father who disowned me on the day of my birth. “Byrd” was given by the family who owned my ancestors as slaves. This is NOT meant to shock you. It is just to set the table with a few truths that give context for who I am. 


Alani iLongwe f/k/a Carlton Byrd…Jr. 


As a child growing up in Fort Myers, Florida, I had dreams of becoming an award winning professional actor. My favorite place to visit on weekends was our local video store where I could rent and watch the latest work of some of my favorite performers such as Charles S. Dutton, Angela Bassett, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg, and Forest Whitaker. While I watched the work of other actors, I was drawn to their work most of all because in their performances I saw myself. Not “Carlton Byrd”. But someone new. Someone I wouldn’t meet until years later. That is to say, in their performances and the stories they told, I saw the possibility for a life beyond the limitations of my imagination. 


My drive to exceed those limitations, would carry me to New York’s University’s Tisch School of the Arts where I would hone my craft as an actor, writer, and producer. My passion for storytelling would guide me from my training in New York to the entertainment capital of Los Angeles. Along the way, I would step into roles on such shows as Law & Order: SVU, Major Crimes, Castle, and Blue Bloods. I would even share the big screen with Academy Award Winners and Emmy Nominees while meeting some of my cinematic heroes face-to-face.  


Then came the Sony Pictures hack of 2014, where I learned how studio executives viewed legends such as Denzel Washington and Kevin Hart. Faces and bodies like mine. Next, came the string of unarmed black men killed on film rocking the United States with a reminder of just how far we have to go until we truly become a “land of the free and home of the brave”. 


But it wasn’t until 2015 that I fully understood that I needed to make a career change. 


I was sitting at home with my then girlfriend, now wife, as she was preparing for a mentoring obligation designed to teach incarcerated young black men how to tell their stories through the power of writing. In preparation, she was tasked with watching a video detailing harmful images in the media which may have contributed to their incarceration. As I watched this video with my significant other, I looked on in horror as a role I played in a movie came on screen being labeled as a key example of a harmful black image. Deeply wounded, I wept. Between the tears, the roles that I had been taking up to that point suddenly came rushing through my mind along with the labels they shared in common — angry, black, thug. I was devastated. 


It was at that point that I began a five year journey dedicated to illuminating the human experience through innovative storytelling. During this time, I would direct and executive produce Chris Gabo’s MEAT PUPPET, a streamed theatrical production aimed at raising money for the philanthropic group, Unusual Suspects, which “mentors, educates, and enriches underserved youth.” Next, I would develop an immersive musical called AT THE RIVER I STAND based on the events surrounding the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968 before co-founding Open City Acting Studio and Open City Theater, a company committed to producing activist theater for social change. Using these works as a foundation, I continued to develop, direct, and produce stories designed to steer BIPOC images in the media away from damaging caricatures and toward the complex beauty of our shared humanity. 


However, my transformation would not only occur professionally but personally. Enroute to marrying my best friend and fathering my first child, I would follow in the footsteps of my Pan-African father-in-law to trace my family history from the plantations of the Virginia Birds/Byrds to the shores of Mozambique. Stripping myself of names linked to trauma and bondage, I would take a new name, Alani iLongwe meaning Little Bird, Precious Child. With this name, I would finally meet the version of myself that I saw in the performances of my favorite actors as a child. 


Whether it is by developing VR digital content, directing streamed theatrical productions, or offering my consultation services to fellow artists looking to create a strategy to expand their skills from one artistic discipline to another, I am in service to those interested in creating the next generation of stories that will illuminate the human spirit. 


Here’s to the stories we may tell together!