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…
Growing up in Richmond, Virginia in the 1930s, Billie Allen had a tough time as a self-proclaimed opera buff. All that fell away, though, when she heard one singer in particular who seemed to have “a direct connection with the center of the Earth.”
“I’m proud as can be of my Black ancestry.” Carol Channing Passes Away at 97
Legendary Broadway star Carol Channing has passed away at the age of 97. Mostly known for originating the role of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, her raspy voice was distinct and unmistakable.
Channing was born in Seattle and found her love of theatre at a young age due to passing out copies of The Christian Science Monitor in front of performance spaces. When it came time for her to go off to college, her mother revealed to her a family secret. She was partially Black. Her paternal grandmother was listed as ‘colored’ on her birth certificate making her father, George Channing, a Black German American. Her mother told her because she would be on her own now and didn’t want her to be surprised if “she had a Black baby.”
I know it’s true the moment I sing and dance. I’m proud as can be of [my black ancestry]. It’s one of the great strains in show business. I’m so grateful. My father was a very dignified man and as white as I am. My [paternal] grandparents were Nordic German, so apparently I [too] took after them [in appearance]
Channing went on to major in drama at Bennington College in Vermont but left school her junior year because of a mention in the New Yorker magazine. However, it was four years until she found another acting gig. She made her stage debut in “Never Take No for an Answer” and was an understudy in “Let’s Face It” but it was her role in the Broadway musical “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” in 1949 that made her a star.
In 1964 Channing stole all of our hearts as Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello Dolly!” and we never wanted her to go away again. It was the role that solidified and defined her as a Broadway staple. This lead to her starring in the movie musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” as Muzzy Van Hossmere in 1967. She was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her role.
Channing was a rightfully a Broadway icon and beloved by all. She won several lifetime achievement awards and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981. Her smile remained bright, and she worked well into her 90’s.
Rest In Peace Carol Channing!
Watch video of her below accepting her Tony Award and exceptional performance by the All-Black cast of Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey.
There’s No One Like Ntozake Shange, Wild Beauties
In this multi-part series, Broadway Black interviews Poet Ntozake Shange.
The Legendary Blue Note Jazz Club located in NYC’s Greenwich Village was buzzing in anticipation of Ntozake Shange’s performance of Wild Beauties. Before the start of the show, I interview Shange’s friends, family, and long time fans, asking them “what they were most looking forward to?”
Although hard to believe, it has been over 40 years since the creation of Shange’s seminal work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Blue Note audience member’s stories span decades; set in New York City, The Bay Area and every town or city in between.
They recall the moments they felt visible in her poetry. They blush as they confess they performed in local productions of For colored girls as lady in red, lady in green or other women in the play. They smile reciting lines from sechita, pyramid and “no more love poems #1. #2, #3 & #4.” They are nostalgic as they tell me about seeing Shange’s work on and off Broadway. They compare the play to the 1982 PBS American Playhouse production, to the Tyler Perry Film with strong opinions about each iteration. Each felt ownership and protective of Shange’s work. Each came to see the artist whose work changed their lives.
At the end of their testimony, there is a pause. Their unending love for Shange is coupled with their concerns for her. I disclose I am writing about the performance and as a result, many ask me with caution in their eyes, about her health.
Is she healthy (enough to do this)? Is she too old to do this? Will this be her last performance?
These questions are caring and well meaning yet, problematic; heavily anchored in western cosmologies about health and our fears of a changing body. I graciously shift the conversation, encouraging them to relax and enjoy the show. As a journalist, I understand it is important to address these curiosities as it relates to Shange’s most recent performance and the legacy of her work.
I had the pleasure to sit with Shange the morning of her Blue Note performance. She candidly discusses her health, her body and her excitement to be performing again since recovering from stroke related medical complications over the last decade. It’s no secret that stroke rehabilitation has been an important part of recovery, as she shared the successes and setbacks on her journey towards wellness. “I went through a period where I didn’t write. I didn’t perform. I concentrated on my physical rehabilitation. I had to learn how to hold things, how to sit up how to stand.”
She is thrilled with the progress she continues to make in rehab. Shange who is a gorgeous 68-year-old woman glows when she talks about dancing. She approaches her physical therapy as if it were a movement workshop often asking her cab drivers to play Latin music and dances in the back seat as she rides.
In our conversation, she strikes me as a fiercely independent woman. She is a Black artist who takes pride in the craft of her poetry. Shange reluctantly depends on speech recognition software to write poetry as the software seeks to not only auto correct but colonize the beauty of black phraseology that is the essence of her work.
Her writing uses a Black talk that dances like jazz telling stories of the diaspora. Her work is the embodiment of Blackness moving in the air to manifest emotion, uniquely her own and there is no one on earth who can replicate. Software certainly can’t do what Shange can do and this is a source of her frustration.
Shange tells me Maya Angelou sent her children’s books to read as she regained her speech. She tells me about times when walking, moving and certainly dancing was impossible. How getting a typewriter helped her feel more connected to her work. She still has poems to write and desires this connection to her words.
She shares that rehearsals are going well and how she loves working with musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson, Michael Raye and Patmore Lewis. She is ecstatic to be back on stage in front of audiences. This is the conversation I am recalling in my mind as audience members whisper to me about her health. This is the reason I decline to speculate, I figure Shange would do what Shange came to do. Perform poems. Dance. Take Names.
The return to the stage at Blue Note feels like a homecoming for Shange. She explains ” I began working in night clubs with musicians reading my poetry. That is how for colored girls started. I feel like it’s the beginning again.”
At the start of the night, the announcer welcomes the audience to Blue Note, painfully mispronouncing her name. The audience rumbled, rolling their eyes in her defense while yelling “Its N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-gay. Her name is N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-ga!” said many voices from neighboring tables.
When the musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson & Michael Raye take the stage the audience tosses their annoyance aside and settles in for the show. Shange soon followed. The audience gives a standing ovation before she utters a word.
She came out swinging. Normally Shange likes to ease audiences into her work offering safety at the start of her sets but she had something to say about PRIDE. Her opening poem, ODE TO ORLANDO is about the Orlando Night Club Tragedy. In June 2016, 49 people were killed and 58 wounded due to hate a crime inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shange lyrically takes audiences to the inside of Pulse nightclub where the black and brown queer bodies gather to celebrate Pride month. Her poem collages stories of her daughter who could’ve been there but wasn’t there. This poem is timely and tender, embracing the spirit of Pride season while not forgetting the need for LGBTQ liberation all year around.
She shares a poem titled LOOSENING STRINGS, OR GIVE ME AN “A”. Shange, a self-described Black girl who grew up listening to “white boys who sang weird harmonies that all sound the same” on the radio states “Yes, Eric Clapton made me want to have a child named Layla.” She has a sense of humor. The audience laughs in tune with her confessions.
Shange like a bandleader of a jazz orchestra moves us through experiences that are terrifying and soft. In THERE ARE NO MARKERS, she reminds us of the brutal reality of Blackness in America. She draws the audience into her world with I had five nose rings.
I had five nose rings
a gold circle
a silver circle
& a half moon
without these I am unarmed
not ready for arbitrary violence
There is no question that Shange captivates audiences. Her poetry, her presence her aura is magnetic. We have heard her words in cafes in local theaters, on Broadway and in Hollywood performed by some of the greatest Black actresses of all time, yet there is nothing like hearing Shange perform her own work. She is beautiful and particular. It is this closeness with her, her words, her journey that audiences are still yearning for 40 years after for colored girls took Broadway by storm at the Booth Theatre in NYC.