Jan. 13, 2016, would have marked the 91st birthday of one of America’s most significant women in theatre: Billie Alllen. The dancer, actor, director and philanthropist from Richmond, Virginia, who was born in 1925 – when New York City was ranked as the most populous city in the world – is noted as a defiant artist who starred on the activist stage long before her eyes were set on the lights of Broadway.
As a young girl, Wilhelmina Louise picketed her neighborhood supermarket when it refused to hire Black workers and participated in voter registration drives. Her parents – Mamie Wimbush Allen, a teacher, and William Allen, an actuary – surely integral in her fervor. During her 70s, she is quoted: ”The saying goes, if you want to date any of Ms. Allen’s daughters, first you have to picket something.”
The saying also could go: If you want brownie points with Ms. Allen, don’t even think about a retirement plan.
Allen had a non-stop career. One that started in 1943, when the 18-year-old star in the making arrived in New York ready to become immersed in the world of theatre. One that undoubtedly was propelled upon witnessing opera singer Marian Anderson perform in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial. Allen recalled the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall. Her protest came in the form of name calling, as the venue would forever be known to her as “Constipation Hall.” Allen had the opportunity to present a rose bouquet to Anderson when she received the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1940, as well as watch her idol – or “secret queen” as she described her – become the first African-American performer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.
In an interview, Allen said of that moment: “We were so elated but most of all proud. Proud because I knew her. Proud because she knew me.” As a trailblazer in her own right, those who have been inspired by Allen voice the same sentiment. They, too, are proud to know her.
For his column piece in The New Yorker, theatre critic Hilton Als wrote:
“Billie was talented and beautiful during an era when the world wasn’t really looking out much for Black female performers… And as she persevered, her world opened up; she worked in Black theatres in Harlem when the place had yet to become a thing, all the while earning her bread and butter with artists ranging from Phil Silvers to James Baldwin and everyone in between.”
After graduating high school, Allen attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) and was mentored by namesake Billie Davis and inspired by Romare Bearden. Bound for New York, she was part of 1944’s On The Town a year after landing in the big city. She was offered a scholarship to study ballet and acting at Lee Strasberg Actors Studio and was soon dancing professionally and auditioning for roles. Her Broadway premiere came in 1947’s Caribbean Carnival. By 1949 she was featured in the film Souls of Sin with Jimmy Wright and William Greaves. During the early 1950s and 1960s, she performed in the Broadway plays Four Saints in Three Acts and My Darlin’ Aida (1952); Take A Giant Step (1953) with Lou Gossett Jr., Godfrey Cambridge and Lincoln Kilpatrick; and Ira Levin’s Critic’s Choice (1960) opposite Henry Fonda.
As one of the first African Americans on television and in commercials, Allen appeared on “The Phil Silvers Show” (from 1955 to 1959) and the soap opera “The Edge of Night” (during 1956). In 1964, Allen returned to the screen in Black Like Me portraying “Vertel.” That same year, she was cast in Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro and directed its revival in 1990. She also appeared in Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie. Allen’s final Broadway role was in 1969 with A Teaspoon Every Four Hours. Her Off-Broadway performance in 1976’s Every Night When the Sun Goes Down at American Place Theatre garnered her a Lucille Lortel nomination.
Also by the mid-70s, Allen’s directorial gifts have graced: Off-Broadway’s Home, with Samuel L. Jackson; Kathleen Collins’ The Brothers; Anna Deavere Smith’s Aye, Aye, Aye; Miss Ethel Waters; and Langston Hughes’ Little Ham, developed with her second husband the late composer Luther Henderson, and which featured Obba Babatundé.
In 2001, she directed Saint Lucy’s Eyes; the play starred longtime friend Ruby Dee, who she shared the stage with in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Her other credits include: television shows “Route 66,” “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “Law and Order”; the TV movie “The Vernon Johns Story”; and films The Wiz, Winter Kills and Eddie Murphy Raw. Allen’s most recent film appearance was in Lynn Nottage‘s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
In an effort to nurture emerging playwrights, Allen founded Harlem’s Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop in 1973 along with Morgan Freeman, Garland Lee Thompson and Clayton Riley. Allen also was a founding member and co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women as well as a founding member of Women’s Project and Productions. She served on the boards of American Place Theatre, New Federal Theatre and AMAS Repertory. At the time of her death, she served on the advisory board of Cherry Lane Theatre – the oldest continuously running Off-Broadway theatre (it opened in 1924) and one of the first theatres Allen visited.
In September 2014, Cherry Lane’s founding artistic director Angelina Fiordellisi supported LPTW’s Oral History series interview of Allen. Tony-winning Phylicia Rashad (the first Black actress awarded for best leading actress in a play) fielded the questions for Lincoln Center event. The project’s interviews are with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Allen herself interviewed the late Rosetta LeNoire and Dee for the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive.
Allen – active with the Tony Awards on its administrator committee, American Theatre Wing advisory committee and nominating board – received the 2002 Audelco Pioneer Award along with her musician husband (who died in 2003). She established a scholarship in honor of Henderson in 2006 at the Juilliard School of Music.
Als also wrote in his commemoration of Allen: “The map of America was on her beautiful face, and the grain of America in her beautiful hair. She was interested in stillness, in listening, but one didn’t get too far in the conversation without Billie’s hands going up in a little arabesque to illustrate a point, or her hips slightly swivelling to emphasize that something exciting had happened, or was about to happen.”
Allen died Dec. 29, at her home in Manhattan. She is survived by a daughter and son from her first marriage, Carolyn Grant and Duane Grant, Jr.; stepchildren; a brother; and a granddaughter.
Watch Billie Allen talk about her idol Marian Anderson…