IT COULD HAVE BEEN A REMAKE OF THE AFRICAN Queen. Instead of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart drifting down the Congo, the voyagers were CCH Pounder (Dr. Angela Hicks on NBC’s hit series ER) and anthropologist Boubacar Kone, on an expedition to West Africa in 1991. Pounder, 46, sitting barefoot in her four-bedroom, gray-stucco house in Los Angeles, remembers her impulsive 17-day sojourn with Kone, a native of Senegal whom she had met through mutual friends just three months earlier, as a blur of “hippos, alligators, fish, blistering sand and no amenities.”
Kone, 53, remembers things a bit differently. “We were going down the Bani River in the middle of the night,” he says, “and she said to me, ‘I don’t feel good. I think there is something strange about the water.’ We stopped the boat and walked the rest of the way. The next day I heard hippos had done some damage on the river. Hippos and alligators are big killers in Africa. Whether she saved my life, I will never know.”
But from that moment on, he began to see Pounder in a new light—like crusty Bogie falling for spirited Kate. “At the end of one sweltering day,” recalls Pounder, “he said to me, ‘You know, you look like you could be my wife.’ ” Three days later, they were wed in a traditional African ceremony in Senegal.
Their adventures, though, may have been a cakewalk compared to the stresses Pounder has faced as an actress. She points to a large acrylic canvas she painted of four headless nudes. “I call this ‘Fourth from the Left,’ ” she says. “It’s me doing an audition naked, at least in the metaphorical sense. It expresses that feeling of exposing yourself to utter strangers, pouring your heart out onstage. You haven’t a clue who is out there. And then you hear out of the darkness: ‘Next.’ ”
Pounder heard a friendlier voice last September when John Wells, ER’s executive producer, phoned her to say he had written Hicks’s character especially for her. A fan of Pounder’s ever since she played a quirky restaurateur in the 1988 film Bagdad Cafe, Wells places her among a breed of actors who, he says, are “extremely intelligent and empathetic: You can give them a line, and their life experiences come through. You can see it in their faces.”
In Pounder’s case, even her name comes with a good story. Carol Christine Hilaria (after her grandmothers and her godmother) was born in Guyana, the second of five children of Ronald Pounder, a Cornell-educated real estate agent who died of cancer in 1984, and his wife, Betsy. As a child, she chose to use all three names because, she says, “I felt I might need the power of ancestors to see me through this journey.”
The Pounders sent their children off to England to be educated, and at 10 Pounder found herself in a dreary convent school in Sussex. “I was [treated like] a servant for [the next] seven years,” she says. “I’m still rebelling. I tell my husband, ‘Get your own meals! I’m not cooking!’ ”
School plays offered the rebel an outlet. In 1971 she entered New York’s Ithaca College to study drama. There, many black classmates derided her accent. “People said, ‘Oh, God, she’s just trying to be white,’ ” says Pounder, who didn’t get angry, she says, because, having lived in different countries, she simply attributed her classmates’ attitude to “the narrow scope of their lives.”
Ultimately her accent gave Pounder her first big break. She auditioned for director Bob Fosse, who was trying to cast a nurse with a Caribbean lilt in 1979’s All That Jazz. She got the part as soon as she opened her mouth.
After Jazz, she soldiered on for five more years in repertory. But on a raw winter night in 1982, while playing the whore in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage in Milwaukee, Pounder decided to head for the warmth of L.A. Her prospects seemed dim. One agent told her bluntly: “I have famous black actors who can’t get work. What do you think I should do with you?”
After a four-month search, Pounder nabbed a tiny role in 1982’s I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can. More offers followed, but Pounder balked at victim roles—”pathetic creatures,” she says, “like the mother on crack selling her baby because she was desperate.” She lobbied for stronger parts—and eventually got roles (like Lt. Hendrix in Sliver) that had originally been written for men.
Pounder’s persuasiveness has helped raise $1 million for a museum of African art that she and Kone are building in Senegal. It is due to open in December. Meanwhile the couple enjoy a bicontinental marriage. Kone lives on Ngor, an island off the coast of Senegal, while Pounder, in L.A., is back at work on the new season of ER, a show her husband has yet to see.
Still, she says, “we made a commitment not to let two or three months go by without seeing each other.” A romantic evening on Ngor, says Pounder, “is poring over architectural plans for the museum.” Well, at least it beats swimming with hippos.
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles