Vol. 1 No. 1 2007
BEYOND BOOKS (Theater)
Teacher, Director, Friend
BY WOODIE KING, JR.
When Lloyd Richard died in New York City, June 29, 2006 on his 87th birthday, the American theatre lost one of the most influential Black theatre artists of the last century. Lloyd's enlightenment caught fire in Detroit.
Detroit is where I began my theatrical career. When I graduated Cass Tech High School in 1956, all I knew about theatre was that the same white faces I had seen in the movies peopled it. I loved the movies. In 1958, with no history of theatre anywhere in my family, a movie titled The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier changed my life forever: A black man saying and doing things I had never seen on screen before! ! Who was Sidney Poi tier? Thus, the journey of who and how did he arrive at that place: to be starring in a major motion picture?
The Detroit Public Library and librarian, Kirk Meyers, led me into the world of Sidney Poi tier and The American Negro Theatre (you, the Reader, must examine Sidney Poitier's history). But first, what about theater right here in Detroit? What about David Rambeau, Cliff Frazier, Walter Mason, Gil Maddox, Alma Forest Parks (who worked with Sidney at the American Negro Theatre), Powell Lindsey, Maggie Porter?
David Rambeau taught me the importance of knowledge; Dave loved black art and black theatre. I sought out Ron Milner; Walter Mason, through his impressionable work as an actor and sophistication, led me to Lloyd Richards. Lloyd Richards brought me back again to Sidney Poitier. Sidney and Lloyd studied acting together with Paul Mann in New York (so .. .1 must study Acting ... )
So, I enrolled in Wayne University to study Acting. At Wayne University Lloyd Richards was a hero. And then, in 1958, late in the year, A Raisin in the Sun, directed by the hero, and starring his friend Sidney Poitier, changed the way American's viewed Black theatre.
Two years after A Raisin in the Sun closed Lloyd started teaching Acting again. I arrived in New York City in March 1964. Walter Mason led me directly to Lloyd Richards. I was immediately accepted in Lloyd's Professional Acting Studio. The studio was located on West 29th Street. Classmates I remember Lloyd working into fine actors were J.B. Abercrombie, Connie Booth, Judith Byrd, Leu Camacho, Lucretia Collins, Cecilia Cooper, Nate Caldwell, Herb Davis, Rick Ferrell, Merv Haines, Mel Hopson, Tina Sattin, Pawnee Sills, Gabrille Strassun, Charles Turner, and Selena Williams.
Lloyd's teaching method was brilliant and yet very basic: he very carefully phrased questions and sought clarity from each of us about our intent in a scene. Through his take on Stanislavski, he led us directly to the character and the through line of the action.
Lloyd let me take care of his studio. I was euphoric! I mopped the floor, took messages, kept attendance, collected fees, and put the chairs in order. I remember answering the telephone when he got the call from Lore Noto to direct The Yearling; from Joseph Kipness to direct I Had A Ball; and the Oneill Theatre Center. Students from the class - including Charles Turner - accompanied Lloyd and Walter Mason to Waterford, Connecticut to build the theater center for its first play, Joel Oliansky's Bedford Forest. I studied Acting with Lloyd until May 1967. In 1966 I asked Lloyd to direct my friend Ron Milner's Who's Got His Own. He accepted. Glynn Turman (who had played Travis in Lloyd's production of A Raisin in the Sun), played the lead.
In a world of artists who are only capable of paving the road once the jungle has been cleared and a pathway exists, Lloyd had no such pathway for his work with Loraine Hansberry and August Wilson. It was Lloyd and Lloyd all alone who placed Black theater's new voices in the mainstream of American Theatre. He directed six of Wilson's ten plays on Broadway; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984); Fences (1987), for which Lloyd received the Tony Award; Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988); The Piano Lesson (1990); Two Trains Running (1992); and Seven Guitars (1996).
In his busy breakneck years as Director of Yale School of Drama, and Yale Repertory Theater, and the O'Neill Playwrights Conference (1979 through the mid 90's) we made dozens of trips to both institutions.
Lloyd was driven by righteousness. Listen to Lloyd in a conversation with me in March 2002 for TDF Sightlines: "...
when we opened in Philadelphia with A Raisin in the Sun, the audience was about 90% white. In three days the audience was over 50% black, and that's where the story came in. I was standing in the lobby of the theatre looking at the people lined up to buy tickets. There was a woman who was at the ticket window who gave the treasurer one dollar. The treasurer told her the ticket is $4.80. She exclaimed, '$4.80?1 I can see Sidney Poitier around the corner in a movie for ninety-five cents.' She went into that pocketbook and got out the rest of her money and bought a ticket and started walking into the theater. It was only 3pm, so the treasurer tells her that she couldn't go in now, she'd have to come back at 8:30. I stopped her and asked her why she was paying $4.80 to see Sidney when she could pay ninety-five cents around the corner. She said 'The word's out in my neighborhood that something's going on down here that concerns me, so I had to come down and find out what it was all about.' At that moment I knew why I was in the theatre, and what I was doing there. "
Lloyd did stay the course. He had an awesome dedication. And commitment. An example: For five days, June 18-23, 2002, he forced himself - while in a wheelchair -to attend a playwrights' conference in Valdez, Alaska. While there, he gave advice and conducted workshops for young playwrights. In his last years he became obsessed with leaving all the information he had amassed over his long career in the hands of generations to follow. In addition to his teaching at The Actor's Center (New York), he commuted to Bennington College; recorded a history of his journey, which was taped November 16, 2004, for the Theater on Film and Tape Archives for New York Public Library; and in the soon to be released documentary, Segregating the Greatest Generation, Lloyd speaks eloquently on how World War II impacted his life and his relationship to white America. Segregating had its world-premiere February 4, 2007.
Lloyd only directed me once: In 1967. But as teacher, director, and friend, Lloyd and I shared a 42-year association. My last meeting with Lloyd was at his home in April 2006. He was meeting and giving advice to Dr. Von Washington; though not in good health, Lloyd graciously granted Von two hours.
I would like to thank his wife Barbara for sharing her husband with the American Theatre; and a special thank you to his sons Scott and Thomas. •