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Lloyd Richards: reminiscence of a theatre life and beyond.

Lloyd Richards, who was born in Toronto, Canada, moved to Detroit, Michigan, with his family when he was four. He graduated from Wayne State University before moving to New York in 1947 to pursue an acting career. His commitment to the theatre is equal to his achievements as an actor, director, and educator. Mr. Richards is among a small coterie of influential and widely respected theatre figures of the twentieth century. After an extraordinary career that spans six decades, he will forever be associated with two preeminent African American dramatists, Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. However, his contributions to new voices in the theatre deserve equal notice. Mr. Richards served as Dean of the Drama School at Yale University and as Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre from 1979 to 1991; he also served as Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theatre Center from 1968 to 1999. Among his numerous awards, prizes, and honorary degrees are a Tony Award in 1984 for his direction of August Wilson's Fences and the National Medal of the Arts in 1993. He was awarded the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (October 2002) for his efforts "in shaping modern theater and guiding some of today's leading voices to the stage." (1) I sat down with Mr. Richards, now 86, in his Manhattan brownstone for seven hour-long sessions, commencing in October 2002 and ending October 4, 2005, two days after August Wilson's death.

NGN: What have you been doing lately?

LR: Well, I get up every morning and check to see if I am all there. Once I have done that and got an affirmative response, I put my pants on, one leg at a time. I'm armored for the day. I choose to spend a certain amount of it teaching because I get a lot back from it. And I don't mean money. I mean what I get in terms of the students' responses. I mean to see their skills develop--because I do teach practice and skills. I now teach at Actor's Studio, Acting Company, Fordham University.

NGN: What was it like growing up in Detroit during the Depression?

LR: The Depression was not a great time to be around. What it meant was that you ate less and that you were hungrier than you wanted to be. You put cardboard inside your shoes when they got holes. I remember we would borrow coal from my uncle. You would borrow a few dollars from here and there. What you were doing was staying alive.

NGN: Your father died when you were nine. Your mother went blind when you were 13. How did these two catastrophes affect your life?

LR: My father's death introduced us to state support. In fact, we became wards of the state because we received money from Aid To Dependent Children. That made it possible for us to get along. My mother had to take in washing, and she had to go and work in houses to support five children. Her blindness was a very traumatic event.

NGN: What brought about the blindness?

LR: My mother was having trouble with her eyes, and she went to see an ophthalmologist who put some drops in her eyes. She screamed in pain, and she never saw well after that. She always believed her blindness was the result of what the ophthalmologist put in her eyes. I can't verify that, but that is what she thought. This meant that she had to be helped.

NGN: You just mentioned that there were five children. What career paths did your siblings take?

LR: When my father died, Allan, my older brother--like any young man at that time--felt that he was the head of the household. He got a job. My mother was determined that I would go to college. A lot of things were sacrificed towards that. My sister Joyce was next to me. My mother had committed to never letting her knees touch the ground. In other words, she would not scrub floors for anyone. Not even in our house. That was a man's job. Joyce did other things, such as washing and ironing the clothes. She went to college and became a stenographer. Buddy, who was next to my sister, originally went to the Henry Ford Training School and studied a trade. He left there and went on to law school. He is now a lawyer. There is a gap between Buddy and Max. Everybody in the family was Max's parent--everybody raised him. He went into the Detroit educational system and became a teacher.

NGN: That's quite an accomplished family. Your mother had to be special.

LR: She was someone to be reckoned with. Rose Richards was not above picking up the phone to call the mayor. She would let him know what was wrong and what should be fixed.

NGN: Where did your mother get her willpower?

LR: It came from her side of the family. Her sister, my aunt Mae, who was the head of her generation, gave all of her nieces and nephews standards by which to raise themselves. My mother's maiden name was Coote. Aunt Mae would say with great authority, "You are a Coote, and a Coote does not do that." Between her, my mother, and other members of the family, you knew that nobody was better than you. You were raised with a lot of pride.

NGN: What were your interests in high school?

LR: Girls.

NGN: I was thinking theatre.

LR: Oh, I was not yet involved in theatre. There was great deprivation for young poor blacks growing up. You looked around, and you looked at who was the apex of the community. I knew a Doctor Simms, who was a very respected man in the Detroit community. I would see Dr. Simms in my house. That was a physical demonstration of something that was possible. I knew a lawyer in my church. He was very respected. Being a minister was a possibility. Other than that you could become a social worker or a teacher. There is something that I didn't consider, although strangely, people had a great deal of respect for them--the railroad conductors. They traveled all over and had a level of acceptance that was very interesting. I set my heart on becoming a lawyer. I was very Impressed with what I read about Clarence Darrow--I could see myself in that role. That probably was my initial recognition of my flair for dramatics.

NGN: I read that you were the youngest vestryman in the history of your Episcopal church. You had a fondness for the language and ideas of the church and their impact on people. Why didn't you continue your life in the clergy?

LR: I did want to be a minister. At some point, later on, I became somewhat disillusioned with church politics. There was more to it than the religious aspect of it.

NGN: When you entered Wayne University (now named Wayne State University), you were pre-law. What got you into theatre?

LR: Wayne University had an excellent theatre program. Detroit used to be one of the major cities on the theatre circuit. There used to be resident companies in Detroit; and Detroit was also the number three city in the country for radio. You had New York, Chicago, and then Detroit. The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet originated in Detroit. There was a basic set up for professionalism. Jam Handy Films was in Detroit, and Jam Handy turned out as many films as Hollywood. So there was this theatre spirit in Detroit, and excellent theatre people. Many of them were on the faculty at Wayne. Wayne had a lot of people in radio, and they built a studio on campus. Although I was pre-law, I was exposed to radio and theatre. Now, there were problems. In the theatre at that time, there were very few parts for a black person. I somehow got involved in poetry contests, and rose through the process to the national poetry reading contests. To get back to my connection to theatre, I connected to theatre in intermediate school when we studied Shakespeare. That is when I fell in love with language. Some of us were called up to recite in front of the class. [I had] that experience of using language, beautiful language that affected people--their response to it was liked being in a warm bath--the same sense I felt when I read lessons as a vestryman. I think those things really influenced me in terms of making my choice.

NGN: As happened with so many others during this time, your education was interrupted by WWII when you served in the Army Air Corps in 1944 and 1945. You were trained for the Army Air Corps in the Tuskegee, Alabama's flight training program for black soldiers. What was this experience like?

LR: That was a very interesting experience. Before I talk about Tuskegee, I need to talk about my experience in the South. I had never been south. My sister, during the early part of the war, decided that she was going there. Her husband had been drafted into the army and sent to Virginia. They had planned to get married in Virginia. With my father being dead, and my older brother already in the army, I was the head of the family. I went with my sister down to Virginia to give her away. The trip was a rude awakening. We took the train to Washington, DC. When we pulled in on the train, we saw the Capitol and all the places that represent America, justice, and human rights--the things we fight for. When we changed trains in Washington, DC, we were ushered to the front car. This car was different from the one on the other train. This car had poor seats and screens in the places of windows. We got on this train and pulled out, heading for Virginia. We still had the steam engines then, so when it started to puff, the black smoke would come in through the screens. This experience was shocking and very hurtful. This was my introduction to segregation. I had experienced it before, but not like that--not with the Capitol in the background.

Now back to your question about the Army Air Corps. As I said, my brother was in the army and I had no father, which meant I had a deferment because I was the support of my mother. Then they withdrew the deferment, and I was going to be sent overseas. I wasn't ready for that. There was pressure to develop a squadron of black pilots. Pilots' training was entirely volunteer. I think, at the time that was a $37,000 education. I used to read magazines on the First World War and airplanes, so I volunteered for the Air Corps and was told that I had to wait. Finally I was called up and sent to Biloxi, Mississippi, where I met all the other guys who had volunteered. That is where the initial testing took place. I was in the army, pre-cadet. I was certified as a pilot bombardier. My name appeared on a list to go to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for radio training. They told me that they had enough pilots, and I was not qualified for a navigator. So, they were sending me to radio school. They put me on a train and sent me to Sioux Falls.

We were introduced to this captain, who said he would get us anything we needed, or do anything for us. And then he said his favorite line, "One thing: Don't fuck around with my women." That was his edit. You knew if you messed around with his women that you were going overseas. He was a very insecure man who could not deal with the fact that he had this black company and that there were all these smart people--and there were some real smart ones. We spent some time in South Dakota. Nobody could explain what we were doing there. Then the order came down. I discovered that the order was not meant for black troops. I tried to get back to pilot training. Then one day they sent all of us out. Some went here, others to other places. I was sent to Florida. To make a long story short, they finally rectified my orders and sent me to Tuskegee. The war ended during my training, so I didn't get to go overseas.

NGN: You returned to Detroit after the service and continued your education at Wayne State. Subsequently you started a theatre group with classmates called These Twenty People. Later the name was changed to the Actors Company. Could you provide a bit of the history and the ambition of this company?

LR: There was a wonderful group of theatre people at Wayne State University when I was there. During the war, the theatre department was decimated. They were not able to do many productions because they didn't have the people. A young white woman approached me and said she wanted to do Hello Out There with me. I read the play and decided to do it. We went into rehearsal. The theatre department did the play mostly in front of soldiers. It was a success. Then people from the theatre department approached me and said they wanted me to be involved in more plays. I told them that would have been fine years ago, but that I had received my orders from the army, and that was where I would spend my time. So, I had met wonderful actors at school before going into the service. When I came back several of those people wanted me to be involved in a certain kind of theatre. There were 20 of us. We were looking for a name and decided on These Twenty People. We located a house in River Rouge Park--a large old mansion. It had a large living room where you could seat maybe 50 people. We decided to perform in there. We did Hedda Gabler, and I played Judge Brack. When that season was over, we decided to stay together and formed the theatre that became The Actors Company.

NGN: Somewhere in this period, weren't you a social worker?

LR: When I came back home from the war, I had to get a job. I didn't want to get a job, but I had to get a job. I looked in the paper and the only thing I saw was that the welfare department needed social workers. I hadn't been trained in that. I went down and told them what my qualifications were. I left feeling confident that I convinced them that I wasn't the proper person to hire. They called and asked me if I could start the next day. I told them that I couldn't start for two weeks. I was sure that would get rid of them. They said that was fine. That began my involvement with the Welfare Department for the City of Detroit. I became a caseworker.

NGN: In 1947, you moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. Was this experience what you had anticipated?

LR: Everyone in those days, who went into the theatre, knew that they had to end up in New York. That's where it all happened. There weren't any regional theatres in those days. They had community theatres, but not on a professional level. If you were going to be serious about the theatre, you had to come to New York. You had to join those 400 people per day who were coming to New York to be in the theatre. Well, I knew I was going to be in the theatre. The Actors Company had five shows in repertory, and we were building an audience. I had my disc jockey show at night. It was difficult for me to consider leaving Detroit. I got a call from James Lipton, who I had gone to school with; he knew me as a character actor in Detroit. He said that there was a play that was going into rehearsal for Broadway that had a number of roles for Negro characters. He said he knew the director and could get me an audition. He said it was time for me to come to New York anyhow. So, I decided to come to New York. Everyone told me that I would be back in a week. I took off, and the fact is, I didn't go back--except to visit my family and friends.

NGN: What was the process like for a young African American man to get acting work in New York during this time?

LR: I arrived in New York and got my room at the YMCA. I went to the theatre, the show that Jimmy had recommended.

NGN: Do you remember the name of the play?

LR: No, I don't remember the name of the show, and I don't remember the name of the director. I was very conscious of not using the director's name, and I ultimately forgot it. He saw me coming across the theatre, and he started to shake his head, saying, "No, no, no." Finally, he said he was looking for character-men. I told him I was a character-man. I started to list the characters I had played. He pointed to the stage. There they were, close to a dozen old men. I obviously wasn't a character-man. It was like: "Welcome to the professional theatre." The professional theatre was not concerned with young kids playing older parts. So, I didn't get accepted in the Actors Studio, which I auditioned for. But I did begin to learn my way around New York. By saying that, I don't just mean the geography of the City. I mean the geography of looking for work in New York City. Jimmy and his wife introduced me to many things and people. They ultimately taught me how to survive, how to look for work, where to go to get pictures, how to put together a resume, and how to develop a system for going around to get people to accept your pictures, and what trades to read and where to hang out.

NGN: Who were some of the actors that you established associations with at this time?

LR: There was a whole Detroit crowd. About four or five of them had gotten an apartment together. That is where we would gather to eat sometimes. You had Roy Somlyo, Michael Tollan, Mary Dell Roberts, Shirley Blanc, and some others. Later on in the process I meet Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier.

NGN: Do you recall any single event, situation, or anecdote in New York City that captures the essence of the 1940s for you?

LR: I remember that I saw Death of a Salesman on the second night of its opening. I managed to get a standing room ticket. I was very impressed by everything about the show. The acting was great, and Kazan's work as a director was really quite stunning. I was aware of Arthur Miller as a playwright. I had done one of his skits in Detroit.

NGN: You acted in several productions at Equity Library Theatre during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Did acting in these productions give you a sense that you had arrived?

LR: Each show that you got was an achievement. It was not just a picture. If you got work Off-Broadway, then you tried to get agents to come and see you. It's the same today for someone starting out. I did do a couple of Equity Library shows and some Off-Broadway shows. That's how you met more people. I was in one show with Rod Steiger and Jack Klugman.

NGN: Did you encounter Canada Lee?

LR: No. Canada Lee was just before that. But Canada was part of my inspiration for continuing in the theatre. Canada was out there; he was trying to do things that had meaning. There was courage in the fact that Canada was there, dealing with very tough situations and difficult problems. He had a wonderful talent, and the society did not choose to truly use that talent. They would let it get out now and then, but they would not use it as they would others. There was something terribly sad but wonderful about his career, in that his talent was never realized to the extent that it could have been. I feel very sad about Paul Robeson also, because he was not fulfilled. What he had to contribute was not totally appreciated or used.

NGN: Since you mentioned Paul Robeson, I realize that at this stage it is early in your career; however, did you have a sense that the McCarthy witchhunt affected your career?

LR: I was very aware of it; however, it did not confront me directly. I later learned that I had been blacklisted.

NGN: Really? I had no idea.

LR: Oh, yes. I didn't know it at the time. I worked so seldom, I didn't come into contact. Later on a director/ writer for a radio show I worked on told me that my name was on the list--that I had been blacklisted. I thought about it and concluded how could I not be. I had performed in protest plays. My name was linked with those plays. I have never looked at my FBI file, but I did do protest plays.

NGN: Do you have any idea how that impacted on your career?

LR: If you are getting work and you stop getting work, then you know it has impacted. If you are not getting work, and you didn't work, you do not notice any impact. You don't know. If you were a black person in the theatre, the things that were available to you were generally plays of protest.

NGN: How did you start to teach acting?

LR: When I came to New York, I was determined that I would not teach because I had explored that possibility, and people only wanted to place me in black colleges in the South. I was not interested in that. I came to New York and was cast by Paul Mann to do this off-Broadway show. In the course of the production, he said to me that when the production was over, he would start a series of classes. He thought that my system was close to his, so he asked me to teach with him. I was with Paul for many years.

NGN: When did you meet Sidney Poitier?

LR: Sidney was in a class that I'd teach. He was an out-of-work actor. Paul gave him a scholarship to come and study with him. I met Sidney there and we got to be good friends.

NGN: Since you've brought up your respect for Sidney and his for you, in Sidney Poitier's recent autobiography The Measure of a Man, he wrote that you were one of the two greatest acting teachers of his era or any other. Quite a compliment. Any response?

LR: I thank him. I was designated at some point as a master teacher. Okay, I accept that, too. I have been around for a long time now. I have taught a lot of people. They have said very nice things about me; I am honored by those things.

NGN: In 1957, before being offered the job to direct A Raisin In The Sun, had you heard anything about Lorraine Hansberry? Anything about this groundbreaking play?

LR: No, not a word. She was an unknown black playwright in New York.

NGN: What is the history of how the play got to Sidney and ultimately to you?

LR: Well, Lorraine's husband (Bob Nemiroff) worked with Philip Rose in the recording business. Sidney was part of their ongoing poker game. Bobby got Lorraine's play to Philip, and Philip wanted to produce it, and he passed it to Sidney. Once they convinced Sidney to do it, then they could start moving. None of them had ever done a Broadway show, or produced a play. It started around the poker table.

NGN: Considering the limited experience of the producers and the playwright, what made you commit to the play?

LR: We all felt that we had a good play. It needed work, but it was a good play. As it turned out, we didn't really know how good. We were all committed to it, and went about trying to raise money. That was not easy. I became involved with the play in December and we didn't go into rehearsal until the following December. For a year I met with Lorraine once a week. When I went into the play, Lorraine had already accepted that it was not a play about Mama, or getting into the new neighborhood, it was about the evolution, the growing up, and the taking of responsibility by Walter Lee. The work on the play wasn't really about Mama's evolution. We were in the process of making it a play about Walter Lee.

NGN: Do you know if Langston Hughes saw A Raisin In The Sun, or had any dealing with Lorraine Hansberry in regards to the title?

LR: No, I don't know if Langston saw the show. I hope he did. I am so respectful of his work.

NGN: I have heard that when the family moved to the new neighborhood, that the play ends with Walter Lee sitting by the window at night with a shotgun. This is a provocative ending, unlike the ending of Mama leaving the old apartment with a plant in her arms.

LR: That may have been a version of the play before it got to me. I never encountered that version.

NGN: Any time a play comes to Broadway, there are considerable risks. However, considering that A Raisin In The Sun was by a young African American woman with no Broadway experience, a young African American director with no Broadway directing experience, producers with no play producing experience, and a predominately black cast in a play dealing with a black subject, do you think there were extra risks and increased pressure?

LR: Of course, we were worrying about the risks. We did some backers' auditions. None of the big money from Broadway was interested in the play at all. We couldn't even get a theatre in New York.

NGN: There are legendary tales about Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil's battles over whose play A Raisin In The Sun was. Obviously, Sidney fought for the play to unfold from the son's point-of-view; likewise, Claudia McNeil fought for the play to focus on the mother's point-of-view. How did you resolve this battle?

LR: The battle had to do with Lorraine's perception of how she structured things. Sidney was to be the star. He got the last curtain call. Claudia's curtain call was just before his. She would get a tremendous ovation, and then the applause would drop off a little bit as Sidney came on. And that became in a way our measure. In Chicago, the last week, Sidney's applause topped Claudia's applause. I knew that we could leave Chicago with that accomplished. Lorraine was not there. She didn't know.

NGN: She wasn't there?

LR: When we opened in Chicago, Lorraine came to me and said she had to go to New York and wouldn't be back. She said there was pressure on her. Her father was a real estate man. He took the first restrictive covenant case to the Supreme Court. (2) There were backlashes about that, which she felt killed him. She and her brother inherited properties. So, there were still injunctions and legal problems. I understood from her that there was a warrant out for her arrest. She had to get out of town. We had to devise a way of working with her not being there for the last six weeks. This meant that I'd look at the show everyday, come back to my hotel and call her on the phone and tell her what I had perceived and what I thought was necessary. And she would go to work on it, and in the morning she would call me and give me her thoughts and her changes. I took those to rehearsals with me. We worked that way for all those weeks. So, I was evaluating that relationship between mama and brother, and she was doing the work.

NGN: The battle was ongoing during rehearsals as well as the production. What did you do?

LR: What I did was to get them to channel their energies into the battle in the play between Mama and Walter. And that battle affected and infused their relationship on stage. And it made any opportunity for Walter's criticism of Mama to engage that part of their feelings, and their antagonism towards one another. What you have to be sure of is the basis of that battle is love because that is at the core of that relationship. Anger is not at the core of that relationship. You have to keep making certain that it is love that is at the core of that relationship. Now, Claudia took certain directions very seriously. For instance, when I told her that I thought it would be important that she became the mother of the whole troop, she took that to heart. She was bossing everyone around in the cast. I turned loose a tiger. You wanted that. But you also wanted it mediated. I was there for that. Her love was as fierce as her anger.

NGN: What effect do you think A Raisin In The Sun has had on American theatre?

LR: I can't list all the ways. That's for historians to deal with. We were told that the [US] theatre was not ready for a play about black family life. A Raisin In the Sun helped prove that that was not so. It also brought black audiences into the Broadway theatre in droves, and everywhere else around the country. That said, that there was a strong black theatre-going public in black communities. It also said that a white audience was very interested in that black family because they could see themselves represented on stage.

NGN: Many good scripts have been led astray because of poor directing. If you had to choose one thing that you think you brought to the table that led to the success of A Raisin In The Sun, what would it be?

LR: A real understanding of what Lorraine was writing about. My affirmation of that came on the first day of rehearsal. One of the things you do is sit around the table and read the play, and the director might talk about the play. That happened with A Raisin In The Sun, and I found myself talking about the play. When I finished with that part of rehearsal, Lorraine told me that I was right on the nose about what I had said about the play and the family. That was an accolade--one of the most important ones--because that is what my work is as a director--to reveal through my directing what the playwright has to say, not what I have to say. We had respect for each other. I don't know if anyone else could have brought that to the table.

NGN: At what point did you know that A Raisin In The Sun was something special?

LR: When I got the play, Barbara (my wife) and I read it aloud in our home on 15th Street. We laughed and cried just from reading the play to one another. We were very impressed with it. There was no question about this being something I wanted to do.

NGN: What was it like to work with Lorraine Hansberry?

LR: Lorraine was a very unique, astute, sharp human being, with a clear mind and a good sense of humor. The most important thing about her, in terms of working with her, was that I could say anything that I thought. She understood what you were talking about and usually took it one step further and made it her own. She also had that ability to critique her own work. She said, in the latter part of the rehearsal, before we went out of town, that the character of Mrs. Johnson, the woman who lived upstairs (played by Beah Richards), had a wonderful scene that would bring down the house. Lorraine said that character was emotionally redundant. I had sensed that, and I agreed with her. She then said that we would have to cut it. We were cutting a wonderful scene with great laughs. After her death, in the musical, her husband put the scene back in. We took it out of the play because it undercut the final scene. She could sense things like that in her own work. She was strong enough to say the scene could work for itself but didn't work for the whole play.

NGN: The recent Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun with Phylicia Rashad (who became the first black woman to win a Tony in the category of leading actress in a play in this production), Audra McDonald (who won the Tony for best performance by a featured actress in this production), and Sean Combs did exceptionally well for the run. Did you have any involvement with that production, did you see it?

LR: I didn't see it. That was intentional. I prefer not to go and see--particularly A Raisin In The Sun--shows that I have developed, and have directed. With Raisin, every line of that play, of the original, was one that I sweated over with Lorraine. So I know what's behind every line. So when someone is saying those lines, or verbalizing those thoughts, I tend to be more critical than I might be if I was there and somebody was living through a story. I have a great deal of respect for the actors. The director called, and I have a great deal of respect for him, but I didn't need to do that.

NGN: The late Mr. Ossie Davis had wonderful things to say about how supportive and encouraging you were to him throughout his entire career. Any thoughts on his contributions to the theatre?

LR: Ossie Davis has been a major force in the American theatre, both as a writer and as an actor. Ossie was Sidney's understudy in A Raisin In The Sun. When Ossie took over the role from Sidney, he told me, "I have sent myself a telegram, from Ossie the writer to Ossie the actor, in which I said, 'Dear Ossie, if you would have listened to me, and stayed at your desk, which you should have, you wouldn't be in the fix you're in tonight.'" That's Ossie; it's the kind of humor he has about something that is very meaningful to him. He was indefatigable as a human being. He is a brilliant man with a very homey sense of humor. He was also a man with a keen sense of justice. He fought for justice. He is a person I am proud of, proud to have known.

NGN: Earle Hyman also spoke highly of you.

LR: Earle Hyman played Walter Lee in the production over in England. Earle was an explorer. He went overseas to Scandinavia, where you don't hear of [black] people going too much. He went there and made a home as an actor. He became very respected in that culture. In going to England with Raisin, Earle auditioned beautifully for the role. We went to England and did Raisin before England was ready. I could have told them to go study and be prepared--they may have been ready in time. By not being ready--one theatre in which we played, between the scenes, you would hear a full fledged orchestra play "Swannee River," or some other spiritual that the British associated with American blacks. One person during that time, he used the terms "our blacks": "our blacks would do this, that or the other." I found it very pale as a statement, and ridiculous enough to laugh at if it weren't so meaningful. It identified the British at time in their relationship to blacks. They were not like Americans. Their manners were different.

NGN: In the 1960s, you went on to direct other Broadway productions: The Moon Besieged, The Yearling, The Long Dream, and others. How did the experience with A Raisin in the Sun assist you in directing the plays that followed?

LR: It helped to get them. It helped me to understand the process. These are all completely different works. Raisin helped me with getting familiar with the territory. The next time you know a little bit more. That does not mean that it isn't bumpy or rough. With the John Brown play, we opened during a newspaper strike. So we got no reviews, and we didn't stand a chance. We were scheduled to open and we didn't have the money to keep on. We opened and had to step off a cliff on that one. The Moon Besieged and The Long Dream just, we weren't good enough.

NGN: It is interesting to hear you say that you weren't good enough.

LR: I mean in terms of acceptability. They didn't think that we brought in something that they wanted to rush out to see. You won't have enough money coming in to pay all the bills.

NGN: Let's stay with the 1960s for a bit--a very interesting decade for many reasons. You have a career as an actor and a director; next you take a step to solidify your career as an educator. In 1966, you became head of the actor-training program at New York University's School of the Arts.

LR: At NYU, a very important fact, they started one of the first complete actors' training programs in the country. They had an excellent group of teachers. I wrote them about my availability and interest. They immediately engaged me to be on the staff in actors' training. It was one of the first real conservatory actors' training programs in the country. Others evolved after that.

NGN: Was there a different type of teaching that you did at NYU as opposed to what you did at Paul Mann?

LR: Paul Mann was a studio, with one teacher before I arrived. He taught two classes: people who had graduated and were out on the street trying to get work, and those who needed to brush up on their techniques. There were a numbers of teachers around Paul Mann, including Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. People who took their classes were committed to the theatre.

NGN: In 1960, you directed "The Committee" for the General Electric Theatre and became the first black director in commercial television. What did this mean to you at the time?

LR: There are many moments, or incidents, in my career when I was discovered the first black person to do whatever. I never did anything that I did in order to receive that designation--it happened because I was attempting to do the things I wanted to do, and someone gave me an opportunity. And I don't question if that person was doing it because I was black or got some distinction for himself. I knew it was done because he or she thought I could handle it. Their future was at stake, as was mine. There were very few people that generous as to put themselves on the line for failure or for bucking standard practice.

NGN: Which did you like better, acting or directing?

LR: Someone once asked me, "What's the difference between acting and directing?" I said that as a director it is as if you are preparing a bird to fly. You are teaching, nurturing, caring for it. And one day the bird is ready to fly. If you cannot enjoy the fact that the bird is now flying, and you are there watching it, you could not be a teacher. Now as an actor, I had been the person who flew. Ultimately, after all the preparation, you go out there as an individual and you fly. If you can't, as a director, stand back and envy that, then you cannot be a director. If you want to be out there and fly, go be an actor.

NGN: A substantial portion of your career has been devoted to directing. You have directed classic texts by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Chekhov, among others. You are not only concerned with the classic text. You were Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Center for over three decades, which is devoted to discovering and developing new plays. Given your commitment to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, it is fair to say you have an affinity for new plays. Why do you attach such significance to them? Why are they important?

LR: The future depends on what we create now. You speak of classic texts and those were plays that were new at some points. They also went through periods of trial and error. Without new plays there will be no classics. New plays contribute to the ongoing reflection of a culture.

NGN: What was the play-development environment like when George White started the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference?

LR: At that time there were very few areas or individuals concerned with new plays or new play development. People now contend that there was a big concern for new plays on Broadway; there wasn't. There were certain individuals who had the means, and housed a talented playwright, and would help him or her develop. And that had happened on a very individual basis. During the 1960s, many of the old producers who supported playwrights were dying out. These were really guys who knew theatre, knew the development of plays. New works were not happening on Broadway and there were, in this entire country, there were maybe five places that were interested in developing new writers. George White didn't like this situation, so he began this project. It took him years to get it started. He initially didn't intend to do it himself. He invited writers up to the area where he lived, and housed them with friends and they had meetings about what they needed. They wanted a place without the commercial pressures of theatre, and where theatre people could pay attention to their work. And that was the beginning. The first year they just talked. George went about developing this plan. He thought that maybe Yale University or somebody would take it over. No one did.

NGN: When did you become involved?

LR: During the fall of 1965, winter 1966, they picked two playwrights after a year of reading plays. One was the The Bird, The Bear, And The Actress, by John Glennon, and the other was Bedford Forest, by Joel Oliansky, a play about the Civil War. I didn't even know Joel Oliansky. They asked him who he wanted to direct his play, and he said me. He had been a Yale graduate student and had seen some of my plays that had come through there. I got a call from a man I never heard of, named George White, asking me to come to a place I had never heard of (Waterford, Connecticut) to direct a play I had never heard of. He asked me to come and do an epic play about the Civil War with a cast of about 60, in a theatre that was yet to be built. And this would all happen in a couple of weeks. Now, this was the kind of thing that gets me. I see what people are trying to do and how they are struggling to make it work. I wanted to be part of this. So, I went to Waterford, and we had about 60 people in the cast. We had armies, battles, and the Ku Klux Klan. Conceptually, I did all of this with flags because that was the thing that was always a part of the war. Uniforms were not--they were lost, stolen, or whatever. The things that survived were usually hats and flags. So a mob of people would rush on with hats, followed by another group with flags.

NGN: You didn't start out as the artistic director?

LR: No. I went to direct Bedford Forest. I was invited back two years later, and later I was invited to take over the conference as Artistic Director. George had been functioning as everything. He accepted the fact that he could not really do the work of both the artistic director and also the managing director. Of all the people he could have chosen, he chose me. I reshaped the conference into something that I thought was important, the development of playwrights.

NGN: What did you attempt to impart to dramatists about playwriting at the National Playwrights Conference? In other words, what did you want them to learn from the experience?

LR: I wanted them to get a great knowledge of what they had achieved, and what they had to do to advance it. In order to help and guide them in their thinking, I gave each a very knowledgeable cast, talented professionals, and I gave them an opportunity to live with playwrights who were going through the same thing. This access is a rare opportunity for working playwrights. Here it is two o'clock in the morning, in the dorm that they stay in, and everybody is working. You have a community. The person whose play was coming up next, you and other playwrights brought him coffee, took care of him. You didn't come to the O'Neill just to get your play done. You came to the O'Neill and you made yourself available to other playwrights--as did directors, designers, actors--everybody was available to the people involved with their work. And that created this productive, wonderful community. You were the focus for a while, and later you focused on someone else.

NGN: In an article in The New York Times (18 July 1999), George White states, "What is known as the O'Neill process should rightfully be known as the Richards Process. Lloyd instituted the practice of dramaturges who work as go-betweens between director and playwright." As you know, the relationship between playwrights and dramaturges is rather delicate. How essential are dramaturges?

LR: Dramaturges have come into our vocabulary. It was there before but as a European term. We used to have major critics after each show. Everybody would come back and these critics would offer critiques, and then the audience would engage with the critics. They would have a wonderful battle, and they loved it. This exchange had nothing to do with the playwright or his or her career. It was a brawl that the audience and critics had. And so I cut that out. But then I said to myself that there were some excellent theatre minds. How do you take that excellent theatre mind and put it into the theatre process? So, I decided to use these critics, those who understood how working on drama could be helpful to playwrights. I mentioned it to George, and he said, "You mean a dramaturge." I went and looked it up; and agreed. And then I got some of the critics to come as dramaturges. Some said they would lose their objectivity, others said yes. Some became excellent dramaturges.

NGN: You have worked with many preeminent playwrights. Why was it an important aspect of your vision to have international playwrights?

LR: It's important that our playwrights be exposed to the thinking of international playwrights. It was fabulous to see how many different countries would come to the O'Neill to see the process, to see what we did and take it back to use it. I would tell them, "Rip us off. Whatever is of value to you, take it. If it can help in the development of your theatre, or playwrights in your theatre, use it." The conference was very open to that.

NGN: When Suzan-Lori Parks became the most recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, she became the first black woman to win the prize. She has been around, writing for more than a decade. However, to my knowledge, she has never been to the O'Neill. Has she ever submitted to the O'Neill, has it just overlooked her, or is her style of writing antithetical to the O'Neill's process?

LR: I don't think any institution overlooks a good opportunity. They may not perceive it as such. The O'Neill cannot take care of every playwright.

NGN: You will forever be linked to two major black playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. What was it about their work that attracted you to them?

LR: Lorraine and August deal with conditions of black people in this society. I have lived in the conditions of blacks in this society. I have been attracted to playwrights because they have also been concerned about this subject. I view theatre as an institution that educates, stimulates, and provokes the audience--it makes them think and feel. Lorraine and August are artists who do that excellently in an artistic as well as in a socially conscious way.

NGN: You have had a successful collaboration with August Wilson. You are no longer directing his plays. What happened to the relationship?

LR: What happened is simply a play came that he did not invite me to direct. That's all. We didn't have a fistfight or draw guns or anything.

NGN: August Wilson's politics, which were expressed in his speech The Ground on Which I Stand at the Theatre Communications Group Conference (June 1996), got him in a bit of hot water. Much of what Wilson advocated in his keynote address, particularly his stance on cultural nationalism and color-blind casting, runs counter to what you have advanced during your entire career. Why do you think that the two of you had such opposite political views?

LR: I don't think our views were opposite. I think he had a particular stance. Brustein had a particular stance. I had a particular stance. I called Brustein a 1930's liberal. August was a 1960's liberal. I don't know what to call myself. They are right-thinking people who came up in their particular time, and used the weapons that were available to them as a way to express the right for human beings fully to exist in this world.

NGN: This question is one that I asked earlier about Lorraine Hansberry. It is appropriate that I ask the same about August Wilson. If you had to choose one thing that you brought to the table as a director that assisted in the success of the six plays (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner's Come And Gone, Two Trains Running, The Piano Lesson, and Seven Guitars) you have directed by August Wilson, what would it be?

LR: Knowledge of characters and knowledge of structure. The first play of August's that I directed, I knew all of those characters. I had met them in barbershops, which is a wonderful, exciting, hilarious place to listen to those characters and all of the discussions that used to go on in those barbershops.

NGN: You directed the original production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom 19 years ago. It is now back on Broadway with Charles Dutton in the same role he created with you. Theresa Merritt, Joe Seneca, and Robert Judd, who were in the original production, have all died. How do you feel about all of this?

LR: It is very difficult for me to go back and look at a work that I helped to create. I know every line in the play. I know why it got there and why it stayed there. It is difficult to listen to a line and not necessarily hear another line that I associate with it. I don't think it is essential to put myself through that. I have never seen the movie of A Raisin In The Sun.

NGN: Although you are no longer August Wilson's director, have you seen his recent plays? Do you still offer him advice?

LR: I don't offer August advice. I do not offer anyone advice who does not request it. I would consider it undue interference in another's life. I have seen most of what August has done since we have not been working together. I have my own thoughts about it, and would certainly have expressed them were I working with August on the development of a particular piece. But since that is not the case, I have not had the opportunity to share my responses with him. He is of course the person due a response that anyone has.

NGN: How do you teach playwriting?

LR: Well, you can't teach storytelling. People have stories they either can tell or they can't. What you can teach is craft. You can teach structure and how things are put together to create progressive dramatic events. That can be taught. Talent cannot be taught--in terms of ability, not only to tell a story but also to spot a story. We all look at the same world. We all look at the same scope of events. And we all see different things. What is very important is what the playwright sees. He sees that dramatic quotient of events. What's key is being able to spot the event.

NGN: You have had a long career in the theatre, spanning six decades. How has the US altered its attitude towards race in the theatre?

LR: The theatre, in its own way, has been one of the most forward thinking places relative to race. The artists who have functioned in the theatre, in their exploration of human attitudes and foibles, have really had to examine very closely behavioral attitudes of individuals and groups. And have, in their exploration of art, come to recognize and realize that art does not have a racial consciousness. Art is the creation of the imagination, and the imagination is not noted by color of the skin. And the theatre, in many respects, has led the way in trying to function with an awareness of that. Of course, the theatre also had to progress and learn.

NGN: Non-traditional casting became a topical issue several years back. What's your position on nontraditional casting?

LR: Non-traditional casting is an issue that comes up regularly, on a 10-year cycle. Somehow each generation has to deal with it, and then it fades away and comes up again. It is a non-issue. I consider that art belongs to the world, not to me. The artist creates from his imagination--a visual or a statement that should elucidate humanity, both in its positive and negative forms. Thus, each generation has to come to terms with its non-traditional casting and settle it. I have been involved with non-traditional casting since the time I was in college. I do not go around that circle any more.

NGN: When you commit to direct a play, how do you motivate yourself?

LR: If I'm not already motivated, I don't commit. When I direct a play, I direct it because I cannot not direct it. In other words, you get scripts that people want you to direct. There is one script you cannot put down; you cannot get it out of your head. You have to direct it. That's the one.

NGN: As director, how do you take it when you are directly criticized for the shortcomings of a production?

LR: I generally do not read reviews.

NGN: You retired as dean of the Yale School of Drama. You retired as Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. And now you are no longer directing August Wilson's plays. What is retirement like for Lloyd Richards?

LR: Retirement? For me, the word does not exist. In all professions, there is a designation "retirement." They may retire you from whatever you did for them. But when I came into the theatre, I accepted the theatre as not just a job, but as a way of life. I will continue in this life until I have no life.

NGN: This is an acting question, not a directing question: I know you did Iago back in the 1950s. Have you ever thought about doing King Lear?

LR: I thought about it. That's a strenuous role. I'd question whether I'm up to it or not. One thinks about it. But thinking about it at 45 is one thing. Thinking about it at 65 is another. Thinking about it at 72 is another. Thinking about it at 83 is another thing. The role deserves a certain kind of attention. If you can't give it the kind of attention that it deserves, you shouldn't do it.

NGN: What was your most memorable acting role?

LR: It may have been Judge Brack.

NGN: Obviously if anyone is qualified to be the "black dean" of the American theatre, it is without question you.

LR: When I was appointed Dean at Yale, I was told that I was the first black dean in the Ivy Leagues. Okay. I did not subscribe to that. That is how someone saw me; still, it is a historical fact. If anyone wishes to call me the black dean of American theatre, okay. It was not on my achievement list. Still, I am proud of the things that I have achieved.

NGN: Beckett stressed the importance of failure. Why is failure significant for playwrights?

LR: It is the recovery from failure where learning exists. Learning comes about when you fail and understood why, and understand how to get out of it, over it, or beyond it.

NGN: As an African American male, what are some of the obstacles that you encountered?

LR: The first obstacle is getting up in the morning, washing my face, looking in the mirror, and seeing a black face. I know as attractive as I feel that face is, there is a world of people that that face is going to antagonize. I am going to dress up my body and take this face out into the world, out into the world where the negative attitude towards the color of my face could permit anything to happen, at any time. And I take that face out into the world every day. I go into the street knowing that I'm somebody's enemy.

NGN: You stated earlier that you are proud of your achievements. You have earned and won myriad awards. Yale created its first endowed Chair to recognize the achievements of an African American in your honor. You received the National Medal of Arts. You won the Tony Award for your directing of Fences. Most recently you have been honored with the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. I know each distinction is important. However, the emotional weight of each cannot be the same. How do you make the distinction?

LR: Each award or honor means that someone was affected by my work. To the extent that they felt it necessary to express that feeling, they selected me. It shows that a person has been moved by something that I have done. It is as if someone greets you on the street, throws their arms around you, and says, "Thank you." For me, those awards and honors are the same as that "thank you" many times over.

NGN: You were instrumental in the LORT movement [League of Resident Theatres]. Do you think it has been beneficial?

LR: Absolutely. It has permitted more artists to realize their potential. Prior to LORT, there was one way. Everyone had to study, prepare and go to New York to have a profession in the theatre. That's no longer true.

NGN: Mr. Richards, considering that you have launched many dreams, how do you spot talent, be it in an actor, a director, dramaturge, or playwright?

LR: I look, I listen, and I sense what compels me about an individual. If there is a quality in an individual that compels my attention, my involvement, then I call that quality talent.

NGN: There is another playwright who you worked with in the 70s and 80s, Phillip Hayes Dean. He is from Chicago, like Lorraine Hansberry. He went to Wayne State University; and he came to New York, like you, to pursue an acting career. You directed his play Freeman. You also directed his play Paul Robeson, starring James Earl Jones, on Broadway. You also directed the movie versions of those two plays. It seems to me as if Dean is the link between Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. What was it about Dean that made you connect to and commit to direct his plays?

LR: Phillip's writing contains a passion that is Phillip. His passion manifests itself outwardly. He is like a caged animal. He has a great deal of power within himself, and it is anxious to be released. He can write. His writing contains that wild but thoughtful passion.

NGN: You directed the two movies I just mentioned. You also directed the movie version of The Piano Lesson, among other things on television. Why didn't you direct A Raisin In The Sun and other movies?

LR: I was not invited to direct A Raisin In The Sun because--they never told me this directly, but I heard it indirectly--I had not done a film and had not proved myself as a film director. It was the excuse of the time. It was the manner of manifesting prejudice and bigotry of the day. They had what seemed a reasonable excuse, and therefore they didn't have to use me.

NGN: To have a long career in the theatre is no easy task. To what do you attribute the longevity of your career?

LR: My ability and my willingness to make myself indispensable. In other words, when I was acknowledged as a good character actor in my youth, and when the profession rejected that--when they said to me, "You're not as tall as Sidney Poitier. You are not as handsome as him. You are not a leading man type, or we aren't looking for juvenile black characters"--I could have gone home and sat down. But I had already chosen the theatre as a place where I would spend my life. There were other things I could do, and I set about doing them. If I had let anyone turn me around, I would have been turned around a long time ago.

NGN: You worked closely with the late Benjamin Mordecai, who was the chairman of the Yale School of Drama's department of theatre management while you were Dean, and one of the producers of August Wilson's Broadway plays that you directed. As someone associated with Mr. Mordecai in various capacities, what story or incident best represents him?

LR: Actually, I hired him. Just trying to recall the things that impressed me is overwhelming. I am sure it had to do with the things he had produced or tried to produce. I hired him on the faculty and as Managing Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. There were those things in the past he had done, and how he responded to what I was doing at Yale. His capacity for running the management program at Yale convinced me. I was running such a tight program that I was very careful who I had around me--people who I liked and people who thought as I did. I gave Ben a task and he found a way to do it. I said, "Ben, find a way that I can take a play into New York and retain control of it." Producing from the base of a university theatre was fine as long as you took your plays to universities or to regional theatres, but if you were thinking about going into New York, there was a lot more money involved, and the operation was bigger. One of the things that can happen when you attempt to go to New York with a play is you bring in someone who has a lot of money. They want control, or at least part of it. It didn't matter that you had been working on the project for two, three, or four years, because of the fact that they were bringing in the final green, they thought they should, or could, or did know everything and should be permitted, not only to express their artistic feelings, but have them realized. So, I wanted to bring works into New York without that kind of pressure. I gave Ben that task and he found a way for me to achieve it.

NGN: You have no doubt heard the shocking news that August Wilson died two days ago. What was your reaction when you heard the news?

LR: I was not shocked by the news. August had called me and I talked with him a couple of days before that. He sounded very weak. He called because he said he was feeling good that day, but good did not mean up to his normal strength. So, I was not shocked or surprised. We were all prepared for it. You know an event like that is always a surprise, despite the fact that you are expecting it, but when it happens you're surprised. I thought that we might have had another conversation, but it did not happen and it will not happen. Whatever we had, that was it. We completed our relationship at this place, and in this time.

NGN: Since you are responsible for discovering August, and nurturing along his career, how will you honor his death?

LR: Several events will happen, such as the naming of the theatre [Broadway's Virginia Theater was named the August Wilson Theater in October after Mr. Wilson's death] and other events at which I will be present and I will have something to say. I do not know now what I will say, but I will have something to say.

NGN: How do you define August's talent?

LR: Well, I think his talent is an evident story that we all live with continuously. It keeps him alive. It is an unusual talent--unusual in the way that he utilized it. He was a poet, an oratorical poet, who became a playwright in the ways that many playwrights must become playwrights. They learn how to record what people say--to give them a thinking process that permits them to arrive at those words. That is the magic that has to be learned. August learned it well. He used it well.

NGN: Do you have a defining August Wilson story?

LR: I have no special story. All I can say is he came. We all know that he was here. He is gone and we still know that he was here.

NGN: Early in Wilson's career, back in 1984, you stated that Wilson was "already a major playwright--not for the black theatre or the green theatre or the blue theatre but for the American theatre." In your accurate assessment, what does it mean to African Americans and to the American theatre to lose Mr. Wilson?

LR: We have lost an important voice. August had a lot to say, and has said some things that he did not even know he was saying. I was in the theatre one evening after one of his plays I had directed was over. I was giving notes to my secretary when an elderly white couple approached us. They stopped and waited. He said, "We want to thank you and Mr. Wilson because you have permitted us something we have not otherwise been permitted to experience. You have taken us into a black experience. You have taken us into the kitchen." We had permitted them into the kitchen life of a black family--something in the totality of their lives they had not experienced. Now, that to me was a very important moment because they were saying, "We hear you;" they were hearing our intent. That is the essence of what the theatre is losing.

NGN: Given the fact that Ms. Hansberry died of cancer, was this deja vu all over again for you?

LR: This has been a very rough year for me. There have been more important people who have lived with me in this theatre generation that I'm part of who have died: Ossie Davis, Arthur Miller, Ben, and many more. My generation is slipping away from me. So many of them have been important people to the theatre, and important people to me. People I have looked up to, exchanged ideas with, worked with--you feel that things around you start to disappear--it's a weird feeling. August's death is important to me--just as Lorraine's was. My generation is crumbling. Somehow together we may have done something--and I am proud of it. I feel like August. I have lived a blessed life, too. He said he had lived a blessed life and he was ready to go.

NGN: And you feel the same?

LR: [Lets out a loud laughter.] Well, no, I am not ready to go.

Notes

(1.) Yale Bulletin and Calendar 31.8 (25 Oct. 2002),

(2.) See Hansberry v. Lee 311 US 32, 41 (1940).

N. Graham Nesmith, a doctoral candidate in theatre at Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Science, is writing his dissertation on the nexus between drama and the Civil Rights Movement. He has published articles in American Theatre, The Dramatist, The Drama Review, The New York Times, The Yale Review, African American Review, and other journals.
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Author:Nesmith, N. Graham
Publication:African American Review
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Date:Sep 22, 2005
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