reprinted to the Web with the permission of the publisher, the School of Education, Indiana State University
© 1982 Indiana State University
Black American Literature Forum, Volume 16,
Number 4, Winter 1982
WHEN THE LORD WAS A BLACK MAN:
A FRESH LOOK AT THE LIFE OF RICHARD BERRY HARRISON
ANDREA J. NOURYEH
Andrea J Nourych is a graduate student in New York Univenity's Performance Studies program.
On March 14, 1935, Richard Berry Harrison, the star of Marc Connellys The Green Pastures, died at the age of seventy as the result of a blood clots traveling to his heart. Until twelve days prior to his death, he had not missed any of the 1,657 performances of the show, either in the two New York City runs or in the three and one-half years of the companys national tour. When he left the dressing room on March 2, he had said to his understudy, Charles Winter Wood, Carry on, the world needs this play." He fully believed he would return to the theater in several days. Mourning services were held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where more than seven thousand dignitaries and invited guests attended while thousands of mourners waited outside the church. "The Lord" had gone "to his maker," and Americans, White and Black alike, felt the loss.Who was Richard B. Harrison that he should have received such accolades at his death? Of all those who participated in Connellys play, he was the most lauded and most remembered. Perhaps this timely deaththe image of his portrayal of God was still fresh in the minds of the American publicmade his fame possible. If he had died years later, it is quite possible that he would, like Charles Gilpin, have died in obscurity. In spite of the acclaim that he was accorded, however, there are huge gaps in the information about his life, and the biographical data which does surface is often clouded by apocryphal stories. Piecing together the life of this performer is like attempting to assemble a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle from which important sections are missing. Yet, in order to understand the significance of one of the early Black performers on the Broadway stage, I have attempted to isolate such facts as would reveal Harrisons unqualified success in The Green Pastures as the culmination of a lifetime of work and the fulfillment of an impossible dream, rather than merely as a twist of fate.
Thomas Harrison, a slave of the Bullock family of Kentucky,1 ran away in about 1851 after seeing two of his brothers sold. He fled through Cincinnati, where the Levi Coffin group of abolitionists fished him from the Ohio River and sent him via the underground railroad to Toledo, Detroit, Windsor, and, finally, to London, Ontario. In 1854 he married Isabella Benton, a runaway house slave of the Chouteau family of St. Louis. Although she had been privileged to accompany the ladies of the house to theater and opera and spoke fluent French, she fled after having been whipped for some minor offense. She had come to London, Ontario, via the underground railroad from East St. Louis, Springfield, Chicago, and Detroit. When a group of residents in London decided to make a pilgrimage to Haiti in the hope that a Black government would ensure them permanent freedom, the Harrisons joined them. However, Haiti proved a disappointment, and the Harrisons made a perilous journey back to Canada before their first child was born. Story has it that, while in New York on her return to London, Isabella insisted that they see Edwin Booths Richard III. In 1864, when Richard Berry was born, he was supposedly named for the famous play.
At the time of the actors birth, London had a population of 15,000 and the children were educated in cabin schools. Harrison recalled in 1935 that he was a typically active boy who fished, played baseball, and got into fights. Besides selling the local newspaper, The London Advertiser, he loved to recite poetry and won prizes for it both in public and Sunday school. He would save up money to see as much theater as he could and would then perform his own versions of plays for neighborhood boys in an old barn on the home lot.2
When Richard was nearly seventeen, his father died, and, as the oldest boy of five brothers and sisters, he had to become the family provider. After working in hotels in Windsor, Ontario, he went to Detroit and began running bells in the Russell House. It was there that a guest tipped him with a copy of Richard III and his study of Shakespeare began. Another guest, Signor Bignoli, a singer, would hand out passes to the local opera. Chambless Hull, a theater manager, gave passes to the bellhops and hotel porters as tips. In this way, Harrison was able to see such actors as Edwin Booth in Hamlet, Henry Irving in The Merchant of Venice, Lawrence Barrett in Francesca di Rimini, Otis Skinner in Macbeth, and Sam Lucas in Uncle Toms Cabin. He would make his living by running bells at the Brunswick House or the Detroit Club, or feeding cattle hot slops from the distillery, during the day and would see operas or dramas at night. Eventually, Hull arranged for Harrison to study elocution at the Detroit Training School of Art, from which he graduated in 1887. He put himself through these studies by working as a porter in a store.
About one year later, Harrison met a drama critic named Edward Weitzel who had acted with Henry Irving in London, England. According to an interview with Harrison, Weitzel helped him study Shakespeare and tried to launch his acting career. "He almost got me two parts in shows that came to town, but each time some member of the cast would draw the color line and I just had to bear my disappointment.3
For Harrison there was no other way to act but to put on one-man shows. In command of fifty poetic recitations as well as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, and Damon and Pythias, Richard B. Harrison began in 1891 to tour the United States and Canada, reading in tents, churches, and schools. Two years later, at the Chicago Exposition, he met the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who taught him dialect readings.4 The two men became close friends, setting up a joint home in Chicago. (The poet was Harrisons best man at his wedding to Gertrude Washington, a graduate of music college, and he became the
(Picture of Richard B. Harrison. Courtesy of the Hatch - Billops Collection. Inc.)
namesake for Harrisons son.) Dunbar wrote two plays for Harrison, Robert Herrick and Winter Roses, and Harrison toured with Dunbar, reading poems from the collection Oak and Ivory to help his friend sell the book.5 They remained close until the poets death in 1906.
When the task of selling Dunbars poetry failed, Harrison began working for the Chicago and Alton and then the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroads as a pullman porter and dining-car waiter. It was on the railroad that he made his first important theater connection. One anecdote he told was that, while working as a porter, he was recommended to a special post as private porter to a vacationing president of a large railroad. It was Harrisons responsibility to look after the mans ten-year-old blind daughter, whom he entertained by giving dramatic readings while the rest of the vacationing party toured at various stops. His employer was supposedly so grateful that, at the journeys end, he filled Harrisons request that Harrison be sent on a layover in Detroit in order to observe and study with the Jessie Bonstelle stock company.6 Later in Harrisons railroad career on the Santa Fe line, A. G. Wells, a railroad official, and his wife were so taken with him that they put him in touch with L. E. Behymer. He was hired as a reader for the Behymer Lyceum Bureau in Los Angeles, which eventually merged with the Great Western Lyceum Bureau.
While continuing to work at various jobsas an auditor in the Pullman Company in Chicago, as superintendent of mails for the Santa Fe Railroad in Los Angeles, and as a police intercommunications systems operator in Chicago, Harrison began touring the country for the Lyceum Bureau. He traveled through Canada, the South, and as far as Mexico successfully reading and performing on lecture platforms, in churches, and in colleges. When he was introduced in the Twin Cities, Frederick Douglass said that he was willing to "entrust the dramatic future of the Negro in Harrisons hands."7
The nature of these tours was far from glamorous. There would be several nights of performance without repetition of material and as many as five or six consecutive recitals in a week. Not only did Harrison have to perform the plays and poems, but afterwards he had to give a critical study or lecture on the works and to answer questions from the audience. It was very grueling work, often with insufficient financial return. In 1935 he recalled: "Sometimes I found myself walking miles from one town to another because the committee in charge did not take in all their receipts before time for me to leave."8 In some instances, the money never reached Harrison.
The demands of this work were monumental. Harrison recited works of Poe, Burns, Byron, Longfellow, Tennyson, Hugo, and, of course, the plays of Shakespeare and dialect poems of Dunbar to an audience which, more often than not, was unlettered. What made this astounding was what he accomplished in a one-man show without benefit of scenery, costumes, or props. He remarked about the tours:
In spite of his success and popularity on the lecture curcuit, it was impossible for Harrison to get work as a stage actor.
As he traveled, Harrison began to note the need for dramatic training among the young people in the Black communities across the country, and he felt that religious and educational institutions should provide it. Thus, by the beginning of World War I, he became involved in church work as financial secretary for church schools, campaigning for funds. In addition, he set up summer lyceum courses in New York City as part of the church program. He taught elocution and dramatics courses at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Branch Normal in Arkansas, and Flipper-Key College in Oklahoma. Finally, he made his headquarters at Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, and put on plays for commencement to pay for his residence at the college.
In 1922, after recovering from a nervous breakdown, Harrison suggested to J. B. Dudley, President of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, that the College should begin a summer-school dramatics curriculum for teachers. Since Harrison had taught courses for the college, the president agreed and made him Department Chair of Dramatics for the first summer-school program. The enrollment started at seventeen and grew to two hundred over the seven years that Harrison held the position, which he relinquished only after taking the role of The Lord in The Green Pastures. What Harrison wanted was to inspire his students to study literature and prepare themselves to work hard as well as to imbue in them a spirit of professionalism.
During this seven-year term at A & T College, Harrison made winter headquarters in New York City where, as lecturer for the Greater New York Federation of Churches, he directed church festivals, trained church dramatic groups, and gave recitals in churches and schools. While still working on the Chautauqua circuit, in 1923, he helped Frank Wilson write Pa Williams Gal, a melodrama which played for one night at the Lafayette Theater and then for one performance in Washington, D.C.10 According to Walker C. Daniel, during this period Harrison was in a vaudeville revue with Will Mercer Cook, Paul Robeson, and Carl White in which he recited Dunbars poem "Little Brown Baby."11 Edward Mapp, in his Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, claims that Harrison also made two movies: How High is Up (1923) and Easy Street (1930).12
Although Harrison had realized the ambition of setting up training programs for young Black performers and their teachers, he had yet to achieve recognition as a stage performer. What is ironic about his finally getting the opportunity to act in Green Pastures was that Harrisons audition for the play was coincidental. As he told it, in late December 1929, while staying in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, with a friend after a recital, he got the urge to get back to New York. After many buses and trains, he arrived in New York and spent an uneventful evening. At 9 a.m. the following morning, however, the casting agent at the Immense Thespians Inc. in Harlem at 132nd Street called him in to be in a show.13 In a second and more quoted version of the story, Harrison was casting for a church production of the Merchant of Venice and, knowing that many actors and actresses were being signed up for The Green Pastures, he hoped to find recruits for his production from those who were rejected. What is common to both stories is that his hiring occurred less than a week before rehearsals were scheduled to begin and the producers were desperate to find a God for the new play. When the casting agent saw the five-foot-eleven-inch, fair-skinned, sixty-five-year-old man with his full head of white hair and dignified manner, he knew that he had found the actor to play the role. Although Harrison was not interested in the part because the play sounded to him like a version of Uncle Tom in Heaven, the casting agent persuaded him to see author Marc Connelly. Harrisons recollection of this meeting follows:
When I met him he asked me to read the Babylon scene and I did. I read it the first time as thought he would expect me to read it. Then I said, "Mr. Connelly, let me read it now the way it ought to be read," and when I did I could see that way up in his baldness he went white. He asked me to take the part. but I told him I was too old and had too much other work to doI was rehearsing three or four classes in dramatics besides giving my lectures. Then he mentioned a figure. 1 told him I got that much for one hours work the previous Thursday. Then he asked me if I would go to the first reading next MondayI told him I didn't know, but I would try.14
All weekend Harrison toyed with doing the play. He was concerned about the potential sacrilege of playing God and equally about letting his people down by playing a Black man in a manner that White men expected. Although his religious fears were allayed after a two-hour conversation with Episcopal Bishop Shipman, Harrison, with the support of his friends, resolved to reject the role and thus this opportunity to act. However, on Sunday afternoon when Connelly called, Harrison accepted in spite of his intention to say no.
During the allotted five weeks of rehearsal, Harrison worked harder than he had ever worked before, losing nineteen pounds as a result. Memorizing the great number of lines, learning to walk, stop. and speak naturally on a treadmill, and mastering the blocking for fifteen of the plays eighteen scenes would have been a task for the most veteran of actors, let alone a man whose performances had never included working with other actors in realistic sets and with props. He was carefully coached in blocking and stage gesture as well as the Southern dialect, which because of his training to read Dunbar and Robert Burns came easily to him. What was perhaps the most difficult was to find the right tone for the vengeful yet merciful God he had to portray. The stage manager coached him to think about the power of a Wall Street financier or a Southern Democratic senator.15 What eventually worked for Harrison, however, were childhood memories of the pastor of his church in London, Ontario, Old Man Blount, who was the holiest man Harrison had ever met in his life. With each line of the dialogue, Harrison would question: How would Blount say or do that?16
On opening night. February 26, 1930, Harrison overcame all the doubts the producers had had about risking an amateur actor in the plays leading role. Not only did he never need any prompting and remember all his stage business; he carried the play. The even greater risk of presenting a Black God to an almost completely White audience vanished with Harrisons deep, rich voice and his gentle, dignified manner on stage. Five years later. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times lauded Harrison as the glory and embodiment of the play. His description seemed to encapsulate the power of Harrisons performance upon the audience:
Over the five years of traveling with the show before his death, Harrison was courted by Rotary Clubs, literary societies, and White and Black church groups all over the country to give readings, lectures, sermons, and words of religious inspiration. He won the Spingarn Medal in 1930 for his characterization of The Lord as well as for his many years as an entertainer and reader of Shakespeare. On his seventieth birthday in 1934, he was awarded an honorary M.A. from Howard University and honorary Ph.D.s in Dramatic Literature from North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College and Lincoln University, and he became the first actor ever to be awarded the Sigma Society Key from Boston University. He had shaken the hands of mayors and received congratulatory telegrams from fourteen university presidents and seven governors, was praised by many religious leaders for his performance, and was awarded an inscribed Bible from the Clergy Club of New York.
Yet, despite all these honors, Richard Berry Harrison had only received an engraved, silver-handled cane from the author and producer to symbolize their appreciation for his work. Despite carrying the entire success of the show, which led to the Pulitzer Prize; leading the company to honor its contracts when pressured by the N.A.A.C.P. and other groups to refuse to perform at the racist National Theater in Washington, D.C.; serving as disciplinarian, money lender, guide, and moral support for the troupe which, as it toured the United States, was adored in the theater but often denied accommodations at nightdespite all that, he was not given formal recognition of his service to the show until four and one-half years after its opening. Only then was he given a raise to two hundred dollars a week and star billing on the marquis.
Until his death, Richard B. Harrison was a compliant and humble man. He had waited patiently for his opportunity to act on stage without bitterness. To allow himself to study and then work as a reader and lecturer, he had supported himself as a waiter, a porter, and serving man without becoming angry. Although being Black was the main reason for his hardships and disappointments in the theater, he bore the ironic twist of wearing yellow grease paint to make him darker for the role in The Green Pastures without rancor. Even when he achieved celebrity status, he continued to send most of his money home while living in a tiny room, six feet by ten feet, at the 135th Street YMCA and eating meals at the Automat. What his fame had brought him, in his own mind, was play production experience and real acting preparation experience which he could use as part of the curriculum of a dramatics school he hoped to open. His only other acting ambition was finally to be given the opportunity to play Shylock.
Although Harrison did not have the opportunities of awards and scholarships that had become available in the 1930s to young, deserving performers, he had never wanted to deny his people by passing as White, even if it would have afforded him financial security. He wanted to share his honors and serve as a model for the young Black men and women struggling for artistic recognition, and he felt that the only way he could exercise any influence was to retain his own identity and either suffer with his race, or proudly win honors for himself and, therefore, raise up others of his people.18
Richard Berry Harrison was neither a fighter nor a politician. Rather he lived by and counseled a code of patience, determination in the face of hardship, modesty, and self-reliance. What made him even more remarkable was the sincerity of his faith: He was a man filled with reverence for life, his people, and his God. At every performance he would take one-half hour to meditate on the role and then break out into a cold sweat before entering on Gabriels line: "Gangway for the Lawd God Jehovah." He didnt want to let down his people or the Deity he was portraying and that he worshipped so fervently. During the years of the tour, Harrison tried to act in life as he did in the role, as a firm paternal figure who would overlook shortcomings and forgive his fellow men for their inconsequential sins. It was, perhaps, as much the nature of the man as his physical bearing and resonant voice which struck the American public. The audience, both depressed and spiritually needy, found Richard Berry Harrison the totally appropriate anthropomorphic image of God without any regard to his race.
NOTES1 In a New York Sun article of 13 Mar. 1930 (New York Public Library clipping file), Harrison claims that the family that owned his father was the Wilkes family.
2Olyve L. Jeter. "De Lawd on Broadway," Crisis. Schomberg Collection.
3Jack Beall, "After Five Years as De Lawd." New York Public Library clipping file.
4 Some scholars and newspaper articles claim this meeting took place in Dayton, Ohio.
5 Benjamin Brawley, Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People (1936; rpt. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1967).
6 Lee Norvelle, "De Lawd of Green Pastures Once was a Pullman Porter," Variety, 7 Jan. 1930. New York Public Library clipping file.
7Souvenir program notes. Hatch-Billops Collection.
10 various newspaper sources claim that Harrison also played the lead role in Pa Williams Gal.
11 Walter C. Daniel, "Absolution": An Unpublished Poem by Richard B. Harrison," Negro History Bulletin, 37 (1974), 309-11.
12 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978). 1 could not find corroboration for Mapps claim: in fact, the Library of Congress listing of movies contains a 1927 listing for How High is Up and no listing for Easy Street.
13 Beall. The casting agent was supposed to have remembered Harrison from Pa William's Gal.
15 Percy Stone, "Being God-like Was Hard Job for De Lawd. " New York Herald Tribune, 30 Mar. 1930. New York Public Library, press book.
17 The New York Times, 27 Feb. 1935. Hatch-Billops Collection.
18 Olyve L. Jeter, - Plaudits of Broadway Addressed to Me Belong to Cast and Race, says Harrison." Amsterdam News, 25 Feb. 3931. Hatch-Billops Collection.
© 1982 Indiana State University
reprinted to the Web with the permission of the publisher, the School of Education, Indiana State University
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