If you’ve seen Back to the Future—either I or II—then you’ve seen the talents of Harry Waters Jr. ’71 in action.
Waters played Chuck Berry’s fictional cousin Marvin Berry in the “Enchantment Under the Sea” high school dance scene of the 1985 hit film. He performed the pop song “Earth Angel” on stage alongside Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly on guitar.
“It was a great experience,” says Waters, now Professor of Theater and Dance and Associate Dean for the Kofi Annan Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College. “I had a live band to work with, and everyone on set was so friendly.”
And he earned a Gold Record for his singing on the soundtrack.
“I thought they were going to have someone else do the vocals,” he says, “but they asked if I wanted to sing the song, and I said ‘Sure!’”
What it means to ‘act on pitch’
Waters’ Marvin Berry performance showcased merely a couple of items in his MacGyver-like professional toolbox—which includes acting, singing, dancing, writing, directing, teaching, community activism, and higher education administration.
He chalks up his multi-faceted skillset to starting his career at a time when success required a broad skillset.
“It was a different time in the world, with less technology involved,” says Waters, who began his career with a dance company in New York City after attending Princeton University. “Everyone needed to be a triple threat: You had to be able to act, dance, and sing. I like to say ‘I act on pitch.’”
In 1991, his skills earned him the role of Belize in the first workshop productions of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He worked with playwright Tony Kushner as a member of the original cast of the award-winning Broadway play, which was made into an HBO TV series in 2003. Waters helped develop the characters of both Belize and Mr. Lies.
“I had great talks with Tony about how a Black, gay drag queen would relate to other characters in various situations,” he says. “I got to be an intrinsic part of a piece of American literature.”
Waters participated in the World Premiere at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, and then the show went to Broadway. Alas, Waters was unavailable to perform in the Broadway production, as he’d been cast in the Disney Channel’s Adventures in Wonderland. He still feels disappointed about the situation but has made some peace with it.
“We created the script itself,” he says, “and the Broadway cast got to work out the kinks and make the show vital.”
Community building and anti-racist action
While Waters has performed in major films and famous theater productions, he’s also been part of performances you’ve never heard of—but that made big impacts on the communities where they happened.
He taught acting to kids in Los Angeles at the Crossroads Arts Academy and Theatre and the Vision Theatre—both led by Marla Gibbs of The Jeffersons TV show. He worked with Cornerstone, a company that lived for months at a time in small towns and urban neighborhoods, collaborating with locals to tell their stories through theater.
“We invite community members to participate in the process, so they work together, hear one another’s stories, and create new relationships,” he says. “It becomes this amazing event where you have 70-year-olds with walkers and 10-year-olds with skateboards all on stage together.”
When he moved to Minnesota, he took along his passion for community-driven theater, recreating the Cornerstone model on St. Paul’s multicultural west side. Through decades of living and working in the Twin Cities, his ties there run deep.
He lives six blocks from what is now called George Floyd Square, where Floyd was killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020. As protests of the murder turned violent, Waters could see fire on three sides of his building. Friends called to check on his safety.
“It was terrifying, like a war zone—guns, fires, people running,” he says. “There was a moment when we wondered if we should leave, if we could leave.”
But he stayed. The violence died down, and within a week, he was on the street with his neighbors, sweeping up debris, nailing plywood over broken windows, and engaging in community meetings. He contributed to fundraising for the Floyd family and to Black Lives Matter Minneapolis.
It’s not the first time he has been a part of anti-racist activism in his community. When Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer in 2016 in a St. Paul suburb, Waters joined the Million Artist Movement in organizing food drives, knitting groups, and song circles to help the community heal.
Lessons in how to be a better human
Now a teacher himself, Waters knows that his education and upbringing played a big role in his success in theater.
A member of Colorado Academy’s last all-male boarding class, he was in a school play every year he was a student, from Ninth to Twelfth Grade. He performed in choir and a vocal harmony group and remembers traveling around the country with the Glee Club.
“I knew I wanted to be an actor,” he says of himself as a young person. “I love acting. I shamelessly will say it anywhere and everywhere.”
And now, he loves teaching and mentoring college students in theater and dance.
“There is something wonderful about sharing your passion and to watch that ‘a-ha’ experience with students who are amazed how this brings them into a fuller appreciation of their own self,” he says. “One of the things that I offer in teaching acting is that it makes you a better human being. Yes, you are crafting a character, but you also learn how to be your true self.”
This year is the 50th anniversary of his graduating class. Their reunion event is scheduled for this fall, and Waters says he’ll be there.