Black History Month Legend – Lloyd Richards

“If you aspire at all, you’re taking a risk. If you aspire as a young Black person to something where there is not a beaten path, you’re taking a risk. So risk is nothing new in your life. But then, some risks cost more than others. I never decided to take risks with my life, I just had no choice.” – Lloyd Richards

Lloyd Richards

Born in Toronto, Canada – but raised in Detroit Michigan – by Jamaican parents, Lloyd Richards was one of the most important figures in American theater during the latter half of the 20th century. He was the first African American to direct a Broadway play, a champion of more than 3 generations of young actors, directors and playwrights including discovering playwright August Wilson. Richards helped develop the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s voice through collaboration on Wilson’s significant early works for the stage, and directed their acclaimed Broadway runs. Wilson’s stories chronicling the struggle for dignity and respect by African Americans giving voice to the men and women both Richards and Wilson knew all too well from their humble pasts.

When he was four years of age Richards moved with his family across the Canadian border to Detroit. There, his carpenter-father found work in one of the automobile factories. Richards was only nine years old when his father died, leaving his mother to raise five children alone in the depths of the Depression. The rest of his youth was marked by poverty and hardship: His mother worked as a domestic servant to support her five children. Life became still more difficult for the Richards family when Mrs. Richards became blind due to the negligence of her physician two years later. Lloyd, only 13, went to work shining shoes and sweeping floors in a barbershop to help put food on the table. Later on, while a student at Wayne University in Detroit, Richards would earn money as an elevator operator, taking his fellow classmates up and down to their classes on the four floors of the Old Main Building.

The Richards family believed in the importance of education, and despite their difficult circumstances, he and his siblings were encouraged to study hard and go to college. He became interested in theater, initially, as a teen, and majored in it at Wayne University. His studies were interrupted by World War II. He volunteered served in the U.S. Army Air Corps’ segregated division of fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He was in training when the war ended in 1945. 

Back in Detroit, he sought stage roles while working as a disc jockey, and helped to start a theater company. Finding only limited opportunities to act, Richards moved to New York City in 1947. Roles for African American actors were hard to come by, but Richards did find a few roles on Broadway. Specifically, he found early employment in the dramas “Freight” and “The Egghead.” He did find work on radio throughout the 1950s but it was more “clandestine.” Although Richards had a well-trained voice that adhered to a common midwestern standard of speech, may radio productions took at risk in hiring him. If it were discovered that his radio work was done by a Black actor, the shows would be pulled from the air throughout the South. The

L to R: Sidney Pointier, Paul Mann, & Richards

In between Off-Broadway roles, Richards waited tables and found steady work as an acting teacher at the Paul Mann Studios. Through these classes he met another struggling actor, Sidney Poitier. Sharing Jamaican ancestry, Richards and Poitier developed a lifelong friendship. Eventually, Poitier introduced him to playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and that led to Richards’ first-time foray into directing. The play was “A Raisin in the Sun,” the landmark original production which opened at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater on March 11, 1959. The show was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Director, and gave Richards the distinction of being the first African American ever to direct a play on Broadway. 

Despite the success of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Richards had a difficult time following it up with another hit. He directed a stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel “The Long Dream” as well as “The Moon Besieged.” Both shows closed during their opening week of performances. He then ventured into works that were not exclusively focused on African-American themes, such as a musical adaptation of “The Yearling” in 1965, only to see it close the night after it opened. He was hired to direct a staged adaptation of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner but ran into issues with producers and was fired from the show. 

L to R: Richards and playwright Lorraine Hansberry in the Ethel Barrymoore Theatre

Once again Lloyd Richards leaned on his background as a acting couch. He became the head of the actor training program at New York University’s School of the Arts, in 1966. In 1968 he took a concurrent post as director of the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. An annual summer workshop, the conference hosts a group of playwrights – some well-known while others are up-and-coming – to nurture their new work to a final draft with the help of a resident cast, director and dramaturge. Under his leadership the O’Neill developed new works by John Guare, Arthur Kopit, Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang, and David Henry Hwang. African or African American playwrights who had plays developed include Derek Wolcott, Wole Soyinka, Charles OyamO Gordon, Richard Wesley, Philip Hayes Dean, and most famously, August Wilson.

He was Professor of Theater and Cinema at Hunter College in New York City before he was tapped, in 1979, to become Dean of the prestigious Yale University School of Drama. At the same time he became Artistic Director of the highly influential Yale Repertory Theatre. 

Throughout his career, Lloyd Richards sought to discover and develop new plays and playwrights, as a member of the Playwrights’ selection committee of the Rockefeller Foundation and of the New American Plays program of the Ford Foundation, and as Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center from 1968 to 1999. Richards’s long search for a major new American playwright bore fruit with the 1984 production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” by August Wilson. Throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, Richards directed the Yale Rep and New York productions of the successive installments of August Wilson’s multi-part chronicle of African American life. The plays in this cycle include “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Two Trains Running” and “Seven Guitars.” They ended their professional relationship in 1996 following the Broadway run of “Seven Guitars.”

Richards’s television credits included segments of “Roots: The Next Generation,” “Bill Moyers’ Journal” and “Robeson,” a presentation on the life of the African American actor and activist Paul Robeson, who was an early inspiration for the young Lloyd Richards. Richards also dealt with Robeson’s life and legacy in the 1977 theatrical production “Paul Robeson.” Richards was the recipient of the Pioneer Award of AUDELCO, the Frederick Douglass Award and, in 1993, was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. He also served as President of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.

Richards retired from Yale in 1991, and from the O’Neill Center in 1999. In his later years he suffered from cardiovascular disease, and died of heart failure on June 29, 2006, at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It was his 87th birthday. Survivors include his wife, Barbara Davenport Richards, a onetime Broadway dancer he wed in 1957, and their sons, Scott and Thomas.