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Community Theater

In the 1960’s community theater was thriving in L.A.  Among them were Ebony Showcase theater on Washington Blvd. (Nick and Edna Stewart); Inner City Cultural Theatre (C. Barnard Jackson); Performing Arts Society in Los Angeles (PASLA), (Vantile Whitfield); Frances William Corner Theatre on Exposition and Frank Silvera’s theatre on La Cienega in Hollywood. I attended performances at all of them. Plays written by African Americans were performed regularly, plays such as James Baldwin’s Amen CornerDay of AbsencePurlie VictoriousA Soldier’s Story, and The River Niger.  

These theaters sprang up after the Watts Riot and were attended by the community as well as Hollywood actors like Robert Hook, “Trouble Man” 1972, (one of the founders of the Negro Ensemble Company); Bea Richards, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967); Butterfly McQueen, “Gone with the Wind” 1939; Nichel Nichols, “Star Trek” and others. 

From these theaters, located mostly in the Black community, actors, writers, poets, producers and directors honed their craft.  Those who were curious, but knew little about the industry had the opportunity to learn. In other communities around L.A. theaters were being formed to produce plays by and for the Native American, Asian, and Hispanic communities. 

These theaters presented not just plays but they also provided a place where poets, (Watts Poets) singers, musicians, and artists could perform and display their work to the community.  Rising out of the ashes of a rebellion, a cultural renaissance changed the landscape of L.A. and beyond.   

James Edwards – 1918-1970

I first met James Edwards when I moved out from New York to Los Angeles in the 1960’s.  I happened to be passing Ebony Showcase Theatre created and run by Nick Steward and his wife Edna. Steward played (Lightnin’) in the cast of the TV series Amos and Andy.  The neighborhood theatre presented plays and nurtured many up and coming actors, writers and producers. I was a member of the cast of “Lost in the Stars,” a play based on Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country.

Frances had worked with James Edwards in the 1950’s when they did a show together with John Moreland, writer, on their 90 minutes TV show, “Live at the 5-4 Ballroom” on KCOP, Channel 13.  Edwards mc’d all the shows.  “He had been in the army and had been wounded which resulted in his having a steel plate in his head.  Always youthful looking, his face had been reconstructed so that it didn’t change whether he was happy or in pain.” (from Frances’ biography).

In the films I saw him in, I noticed his limited range of emotions. Nonetheless, I was happy and proud to see him in different roles.  Though he portrayed secondary roles, he brought dignity to all his performances. Tall, 6’1, handsome, Edwards was one of the first African American actors to elevate roles played by black actors. So many roles offered to Black actors of his day and earlier were caricatures, stereotypical roles played by a host of actors most notably Stephin Fetchit and Willie Best in which the characters seemed illiterate, silly, fearful, or bossy.

I took one lesson from Edwards but I’ll never forget him. He starred in, Home of the Brave(1949) in which he played Private Peter Moss. The film dealt with racial prejudice among the soldiers in the South Pacific during WWII. Between the 1950’s and 60’s Edwards played character roles alongside Hollywood heavyweights.   He played Larry Brant, in The Sandpiper(1965) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Eva Marie Saint; He played Corporal Allen Melvin inThe Manchurian Candidate(1962) starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Janet Leigh.  In 1958 he played Eddie in Anna Lucasta, with all black cast starring Eartha Kitt, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frederick O’Neal.  In Battle Hymn(1951) he played Lieutenant Maples with Rock Hudson, Anna Kashh, and Dan Duryea.   He appeared in numerous TV shows including Playhouse 90 and Zane Gray Theatre, and series such as Peter Gunn, and Eastside/Westside staring George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson.

Edwards was born March 6, 1918 in Muncie, Indiana. He received his Master’s degree in Drama from Northwestern University.  He was a first lieutenant, a commissioned officer in the army.   He was called before the House Un American Activities Committee (HUAC) but refused to testify before. I’m sure, like Frances, it didn’t help his career.

He died of a heart attack on June 4, 1970. He leaves behind his wife, Leola Sayles Mosley, and a son.

 

Black Magic, a book review

Black Magic is a pictorial history of the African American in the Performing Arts by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer. I stumbled across this book in the used book section of a library in Las Vegas. As I read it, I am reminded of how much of my history I don’t know. Langston Hughes, poet laureate has been called “the recording secretary of the tribe by some because throughout his life whether in poems, story and essays he transcribed black life. It is a gem.

Black Magic is filled with photos of African Americans who created, inspired, transformed much of the foundation of American culture. The book carries its readers from the 1790’s up to 1966. Beginning with the days of slavery when Africans, being denied the ability to express themselves, found ways to keep alive their culture despite the harsh conditions of the time.

It contains a wealth of information including photographs, posters, drawings, paintings and covers of sheet music of songs written by enslaved black folk as they expressed themselves through music, song, dance and folktales. It highlights exploitation in all areas of the performing arts. Yet and still African Americans broke through those barriers to make a positive and lasting impact on American culture. A small sample is listed below.

  • Songs by James Bland written before the Civil War,
  • Musician Blind Tom who made his master a fortune
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe based her character Uncle Tom in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Rev Josiah Henson.
  • In 1896 Burt Williams and George Walker introduced the Cakewalk to vaudeville
  • Fiddler Solomon Northup, whose memoir Twelve Years A Slave was turned into a major motion picture over a hundred years after it was published.
  • William Grant Stills, first Negro composer in the U.S. to conduct a major symphony orchestra.
  • Bricktop who opened a nightclub in Paris and whose guests included Cole Porter
  • A year after giving a concert at Buckingham Palace before King George V, Roland Hayes became the first Negro to give a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1923.
  • In 1939, Marian Anderson, when denied the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall, was invited by the government to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 people.
  • In the 1950’s musician and composer Margaret Bonds had the most music registered with ASCAP
  • In the 1960’s plays written by a number of Black playwrights were performed on and off Broadway – James Baldwin, (The Amen Corner); Lorraine Hansberry, (A Raisin in the Sun); and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) (The Dutchman, The Toilet).
  • Entertainers like Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Waters, made their mark on stage, screen and television.

Ossie Davis who wrote the forward in 1990 reflects on his sense of pride he felt reading the book, “remembering and looking at the pictures, living my very small part.” Nonetheless, his sense of pride is tinged with sadness knowing that many of those artists suffered under the weight of prejudice and discrimination. Still he says, “It’s a wonderful work, a “good read…” “Black Magic is still lifting the human spirit.”

Today,  we have come far in all aspects of entertainment. A few examples come to mind. In the 1980’s comedy/drama TV “Frank’s Place” in which Frances played Miss Marie, waitress emeritus. Today, “Scandal,” “How To Get Away with Murder,” and “Empire,” three popular TV dramas are headed by African American Actors. Academy Award Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Training Day, and Glory, Cuba Gooding and Jamie Fox “Ray.” Plays by playwright August Wilson, example, “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson.” Broadway plays staring all black casts ex. – Dreamgirls; Grammy winners such as musicians, Herbie Hancock, and Quincy Jones; Singer Beyonce, “Selma” Director Ava DuVernay, Actors Viola Davis “The Help.” There are just too many to name. If someone were to publish a new Black Magic today, it would have to include these and many more names.  As it is, this Black Magic is a gold mine.

Dr. Maya Angelou, Frances, and Me

In 1993, my friend Frances E. Williams introduced me to Maya Angelou when Dr. Angelou was on a book tour. She was speaking at the Aquarius Book Store, the oldest African American bookstore in L.A. owned by Alfred and Bernice Ligon. She was there to promote her book, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now.   Whenever Dr. Angelou came to L.A., she made sure her book tours always included a stop at the Aquarius Bookstore not only because she was a friend of the Ligons, but also because it was one of the only black-owned bookstores in the community. Also she would spend time with Frances at her home near Exposition.

Frances and Maya Angelou’s friendship went back years. In 1965 Angelou lived in one of Frances’s duplex apartments on 5th and Exposition. Actress Beah Richards lived in the other. Frances lived in the rear house on the property. “We called it ‘the Compound,”said Frances in her biography*. She had met both Maya Angelou and Beah Richards years earlier.

One day, when I came up to work on her biography, Frances asked me to take her to the Aquarius bookstore to see her friend. I loaded her into my car and when we arrived at the Aquarius, lines were around the corner, the community always turned out to see Dr. Angelou. Spotting Frances, a community activist, whose relationship with Maya Angelou, the Ligons and the bookstore was well-known, security pushed others aside, helped her from my car and whisked her inside. I drove several blocks away to find a parking space; then I walked back. Knowing that I was with Frances, I was ushered in ahead of those waiting and seated beside my friend near the front of the stage. After Dr. Angelou’s talk, Frances introduced me to her and encouraged me to ask her if she’d write the introduction to Frances’s biography. Dr. Angelou graciously accepted my request.

Before the biography was finished, however, Frances died. I tried to contact Dr. Angelou in Winston Salem, N.C. And one day, her secretary called me to say Dr. Angelou could speak to me. Unfortunately, I was couldn’t take the call. I made several attempts, but something would always get in the way. During the years that followed, every time I’d hear about Maya Angelou coming to Southern California, I thought about going to see her, not to ask her to write the introduction to the book, it was already published; but just to make contact, to remind her that we’d met and possibly to get an interview with her to tell me more about her relationship with Frances. But alas, I never followed through. Now it is too late. As I listen to the tributes being paid to Dr. Angelou, I think about that missed opportunity.

I’d seen her at Los Angeles City College years earlier. She spoke on the connection between African boys living in Africa and African American boys in the U.S. It was a wonderful and insightful talk. Little did I know that I would later meet this awesome woman. She was a beautiful, gracious lady whose life touched many. Because of Frances, I felt I knew her personally. Her life and work stands as an inspiration to all.

 

 

*From Meet it, Greet it, and Defeat it! The Biography of Frances E. Williams, Actress/Activist, by Anna Christian.