Sunday, July 02, 2006

R.I. P. Lloyd Richards

I met Lloyd Richards, and though I spent only a few hours talking with him, I observed him over the course of a couple of weeks, and learned a lot about him from others. I didn't know however that our birthdays were one day apart. I found out just now, reading his obituary in the New York Times. He died on June 29, his 87th birthday.

Richards directed the first New York production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun in 1957, arguably the first authentic portrayal of African American life on the American stage. It was a classic when I read it in high school in the early 60s. But in his years of directing and discovering and nurturing playwrights of all races, his most important find was August Wilson, a great American playwright, who created the richest and most sustained expression of African American life in the twentieth century.

Only hours ago I opened a box of books one of my sisters sent for my birthday--an August Wilson play, an August Wilson essay, and a book on August Wilson (all from my Amazon Wish List.) Richards was instrumental in Wilson's career, and I met them both on the same day (July 1, a day after my birthday in 1991) at the Eugene O'Neill Center summer playwrights conference, where they had begun working together. It was Richards who picked out the manuscript for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" from the thousand or so that came to the O'Neill, brought the unknown Pittsburgh playwright to Waterford to work on the play, and then mounted its first productions at Yale and in New York.

Lloyd Richards was the heart and soul of the O'Neill, so important to many American playwrights. He transformed it into a community concentrating on honing and freeing new voices in theatre. He was utterly respected by everyone, for his discipline and gentleness, his rigor and humor, his attentiveness to detail and insistence on communicating the big picture, so everyone knew and shared the same vision of the O'Neill process. It hasn't been the same since he retired from being its artistic director.August Wilson died last year, and so the two giants of African American theatre are gone.

And to think just minutes ago I was ordering the last play I haven't read (apart from the one I just got) in Wilson's titanic ten play cycle, one for each decade of the twentieth century. That cycle is a truly stunning achievement, and Richards was part of getting many of those plays to their staged versions. I was looking forward to reading them all in the order of decades. Then minutes later I happened to read this. Of course, it's not as shocking as August Wilson's death at age 61. But it is another indication of an era passing. These two men have left such an incredible legacy to America and theatre everywhere.

No comments: