You could make the case that former Richmonder Nicci Carr, who has enjoyed a nice rush of attention as the apron-wearing “Tasha” in the “Scoop! There it is!” Geico commercial, got her big break in show business in an elementary school cafeteria.
The students that day were moving from “restless” to whatever comes next on the We’re-Not-Listening scale, and Carr, a second-grade teacher on lunch duty, had pretty much emptied her bag of crowd-control tricks.
So, the amateur actor did what came naturally: She jumped on the stage, broke out a British accent and started making up a funny story about “two little girls from London, England.”
The children were mesmerized.
“At first, they were like, ‘What’s she doing?’ Then I could hear chuckles,” Carr recalled of the young students. “If you’re not funny, they’re not going to laugh. It’s a tough crowd.”
One of the students approached Carr and told her she had an uncle who was an actor in Hollywood. One thing led to another, and a phone call with the uncle was arranged. They talked about the business — she had performed in community theater and church plays — and how much she wanted to get into it. Time passed, and they spoke on several occasions.
At one point, the uncle told her, “Nicci, you need to move. D.C. is good, but if you really want to be serious, you’ve got to move.’”
She flew to California for a visit during her Christmas break in 2003, liked what she saw, returned home and submitted her two-weeks notice.
The pursuit of her dream was on.
A synopsis of Carr’s bio goes like this:
A New York native, Carr moved to Richmond when she was about 8. She attended city schools, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and earned a degree in political science at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville. She taught school in Washington, moved to Los Angeles, where she scrambled to find acting jobs (which included roles as an extra in “Beauty Shop” and “The West Wing,” among other films and shows), completed a master’s degree in student development in higher education, worked at UCLA and the University of Southern California, burned out on acting as a career, moved to Atlanta and settled into a job at Georgia State University.
And then she discovered acting again — or maybe acting rediscovered her — as she watched a production taking place in Atlanta’s Woodruff Park outside her office window. The sights, sounds and equipment of the production beckoned her back.
“It was calling my name,” she said.
After relaunching her acting career, she landed gigs on shows such as “Atlanta,” “Good Girls” and “P-Valley,” which led to the Geico commercial. It was shot last November and debuted on Christmas Day. It has almost 15 million views on YouTube and who knows how many smiles in TV land.
As the commercial opens, Carr is cutting vegetables in the kitchen, but by the end she has fully joined in the dancing — elbows and all — with the hip-hop duo Tag Team as they joyfully scoop ice cream in a comically reworded version of their 1990s hit, “Whoomp! (There It Is).”
Martin Agency senior vice president and creative director Sean Riley said Carr “brought so much energy and humor to the spot. Just a perfect performance.”
Carr said, “We had a ball shooting it,” and the good vibe of the commercial has extended into her real life.
“This Geico commercial has opened my eyes to see beyond the trees in front of me and see the future as it is,” said Carr, who turns 50 this year, in a phone interview from Atlanta, noting how the Geico gig proved to be a most beautiful end to an ugly year marred by COVID-19 and racial injustice.
As she sees it now, the future is “big and bright and full of laughter and joy.”
Entertainment has been a focus of Carr’s since she was a child and her father took her to a drive-in theater to see “Grease.” By the time she was 10, Carr was playing piano at Mosby Memorial Baptist Church. She participated in SPARC — the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community — playing the harp, singing and dancing.
“She’s not shy,” said her mother, Evelyn Jamison, with a laugh. A retired licensed practical nurse for Richmond Public Schools, Jamison makes her home in Henrico County. “Whenever we got together as a family, she was always the leader, playing and singing and devising games for us. She was always the leader.”
At Thomas Jefferson, Carr sang the national anthem before basketball games, which caught the attention of school guidance counselor Aubrey Fountain II, who thought to himself: “This child has a beautiful voice.”
It was Fountain who encouraged Carr to apply to his alma mater, Saint Paul’s College, despite her reluctance to attend college at all. She was planning to return to New York after high school with a vague notion of “working at the Port Authority in the day and Broadway at night.” He told her she needed more of a plan than that. He helped her fill out the applications for St. Paul’s and for financial aid, and he put her in contact with people he knew at the school.
“I don’t think she realized how smart and talented she was,” said Fountain, now retired from Richmond Public Schools after working for more than 50 years as a teacher and counselor. “This girl had a lot to offer, and I couldn’t see her wasting those talents she had.
“She was one of those that I had to kind of push.”
Turned out to be more than good advice, Carr said, and she keeps in touch with Fountain in appreciation, always making sure to contact him whenever “something big happens.” Carr calls him “Pops.”
During our interview, Carr brimmed with gratitude for those who have helped her. For her recent success, she singled out Stewart Talent Agency, which represents her, and Richmond’s Martin Agency, which produced the commercial and cast her; more broadly, she said her aunt Edna Rodwell played a big role as she was growing up (“She was like a second mom,” Carr says) and then there is her mom.
“She’s my rock,” Carr said.
The success of the Geico commercial has helped Carr turn the page into what she firmly believes is a new chapter in her life — that, at first, is leading to an old, familiar place.
At Georgia State, Carr is undergraduate coordinator in the biology department, but she is also a student, seeking a bachelor’s degree in film. She expects to graduate in August, and she is about to embark on a final project: production of a documentary about James Solomon Russell, founder of Saint Paul’s College and a major figure in the history of Southside Virginia.
Russell was born into slavery in Mecklenburg County, four years before the beginning of the Civil War, living his early years with his mother. His parents were forced to live and work on separate plantations. Education became a cornerstone of his life early on, and despite financial hardships, he established himself as a teacher in the Black community even before attending Hampton Institute, and then Bishop Payne Divinity School in Petersburg, where he would become the first student in an Episcopal seminary for Blacks.
He began his ministry in Lawrenceville, helped to establish a series of churches and schools in the region and, seeing a need for educational opportunities for Blacks beyond one-room schoolhouses, founded Saint Paul Normal and Industrial School in 1888. The well-traveled and well-connected Russell raised funds from such famous benefactors as J.P. Morgan, Julius Rosenwald and John D. Rockefeller before retiring in 1929.
Saint Paul’s became an accredited four-year college in the 1940s and operated until 2013, when it closed down in the wake of financial problems and declining student enrollment.
Carr knew of Russell — his name was all over the Saint Paul’s campus — but she really didn’t know his story until fellow Saint Paul’s alum Teya Whitehead, who is a member of the board of the James Solomon Russell-Saint Paul’s College Museum and Archives in Lawrenceville, sent her a copy of Russell’s autobiography, “Adventure in Faith,” earlier this year.
Knowing Russell’s story now, Carr said it feels as if she were “walking on hallowed ground” when she was a student, and she wants to do him and his story justice by telling it well in the documentary.
“We can’t let his dream die,” she said.
The museum is providing historic photos and information and other support to Carr. In return, the museum hopes to use the documentary to tell its story, said Bobby Conner, vice chairman of the agency’s board.
“We hope to post [the documentary] on our webpage and also use it at the museum as an orientation on the life of James Solomon Russell,” Conner said. “The documentary will help the museum expand its mission educating the public about Russell.”
After securing her degree in film, Carr hopes to pursue an MFA in acting — so, she said, she can “correctly” learn the craft that to this point she’s practiced by learning on the fly. And then she’d like to continue acting while also teaching at the university level.
“Preferably at a historically Black university,” she said.
Maybe at Saint Paul’s College, if it were ever reopened?
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” she said.