At 10:55 PM on April 15 of this year, in the early days of our national shutdown, Walter Dallas posted on Facebook for the last time:
“Thanks for all your support but I’ve now been Incarcerated.”
And with that cryptic comment, Walter’s voice on went silent social media. Ironic considering how active he had been.
The next time I heard anything about him was the drumbeat of friends and loved one’s acknowledging his passing across several social media platforms on May 3rd, of this year.
“Rest in Peace. Rest in Power.” “Walter Dallas Has Become An Ancestor.”
The number of people who shared the sense of loss about this man grew over the day as similar testimonials were posted all over Facebook.
“The theater world has lost a giant. One of the kindest and most generous of men. A director, a playwright, a mentor, a teacher,” wrote Paula Cizmar, a writer.
“Walter was the heartbeat of Philadelphia theatre,” wrote Owen Brown Jr., who taught at Freedom Theatre.
“From the first instruction he gave me on stage, I knew I was in the presence of a genius,” wrote Jos Duncan, a Philadelphia filmmaker.
“Award-winning American Theater icon Walter Dallas was an actor, director, playwright, screenwriter, and educator. He was so many things. But most importantly, he was my friend, mentor, and a safe place.” wrote Marcia Pendleton of Black Theatre Online.
Playwright Lee Edward Colston II, who most recently had his play “The First Deep Breath” premiered at the Victory Garden in Chicago, said to me “I wouldn’t be here if not for his love.”
There’s a proverb that is more of a warning to the living. It goes “We die three times. First, when you take your last breath. The next death comes when we put in the ground, the third and final death comes when people stop speaking your name.”
Walter’s name must be kept alive. This tribute will be my part in working towards that effort.
Who was Walter Dallas? He was friends with James Baldwin, August Wilson, and Denzel Washington. He was a collaborator with Viola Davis, Alice Childress and Ntozake Shange.
Walter was born in Atlanta, GA in 1946. A graduate of Morehouse College and the Yale School of Drama, he also studied music and theology at Harvard University, and dance and theater in traditional African societies at the University of Ghana at Legon. He taught theatre at Antioch College and the University of California, Berkeley.
He won recognition and several awards for his work on and Off-Broadway and regionally at such theaters as the Negro Ensemble Company, Hudson Guild Theatre, American Place Theatre, Yale Rep, Crossroads Theatre Company, Alliance Theatre and Baltimore’s Center Stage where he was a Director Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts. At Chicago’s Goodman Theatre he directed the critically acclaimed world premiere of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, named one of the Top Ten Best Theatre Events of 1995 by Time Magazine. The show later became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1983 Walter was invited to Philadelphia to create the School of Theatre for the University of the Arts. Almost a decade later Walter assumed the artistic leadership of Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre following the the death of founder John E. Allen, Jr.
Awards include an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the Arts (May, 2002), a local Emmy Award (San Francisco), New York’s prestigious AUDELCO National Achievement Award for Excellence in Black Theatre, and several Bronze Jubilee Awards for Outstanding Direction. He received a Proclamation, “Walter Dallas Day” from Atlanta’s Mayor Maynard Jackson, and two Creative Genius Awards from the Atlanta Circle of Drama Critics. For his production of Having Our Say at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum he received a 1997 NAACP Theatre Award nomination for Best Director. His off-Broadway production of Moms garnered an Obie Award for its star, Clarice Taylor, and resulted in two successful national tours. His production of Desire Under the Elms at Chicago’s Court Theatre received two 2000 Black Theatre Alliance Award nominations. World premieres include works by James Baldwin, Leslie Lee, Sam Kelley, Kia Corthron, Ntozake Shange, Samm-Art Williams, Clarice Taylor, Thulani Davis and many others.
His own adaptation of the film “Cooley High” and one of “Sparkle” adapted by Ntozake Shange premiered at Freedom. He also premiered John Henry Redwood’s “The Old Settler” at the McCarter Theatre. His world-premiere production of Charles Smith’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” produced by New York’s Acting Company, enjoyed a national tour, a critically acclaimed Off Broadway run and earned him a 2002 AUDELCO nomination for Best Director.
In 2008, after running Freedom for 16 years he left to teach and direct at the University of Maryland.
Over the course of his career Walter did additional new play development work with experiences at Sundance, the Eugene O’Neill Center, the Public Theatre, New Dramatists, and in Africa, England, France, and Russia.
His awards and recognition were numerous but here are just a few more he received in the last few years:
Recipient, New York AUDELCO Special Pioneer Award for Excellence in Black Theatre, 2016.
Winner, Best Director from the AUDELCO Award in New York for “Autumn,” a play by Richard Wesley.
Honored as one of “Philadelphia’s 100 History Makers of the 20th Century.”
Following a lifetime of traveling the globe, Walter returned home to Atlanta in recent years where he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This was his second battle with cancer, having beaten prostate cancer earlier in his life.
Walter won’t have a building named after him or an academic seat or fellowship. But what he does leave behind is a rich legacy of people who lives he touched. There are a number of people with careers in the theater, in academia and other parts of the entertainment industries today who live vastly different lives because of Walter, not just here in the United States, but overseas in Africa and across Europe.
Two more directing credits in his long resumé were the world premiere of “…Continued Warm” by Jeffry Chastang and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye adapted by Lydia Diamond. These are shows Walter directed for my company, Plowshares Theatre. He directed them not because I could pay him what he was worth. Instead, he did because he found both plays appealing and, as he told me later, because I asked.
Author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates once said, “When brilliant Black artists fall down on the stage, they don’t fall down alone.”
If so, we all fell down on May 3rd. We fell hard.
He might have given you the gift of a kind thought in a card or an email, a willingness to listen to your problem, or a constructive word of criticism when you needed it. Or the gift he gave you might have been the offer a safe space exactly when you needed it. But Walter was capable of doing or saying the right thing almost always when you needed it. Because he did it out of love and generosity.
If you knew Walter then nothing I can say may capture how his passing makes you feel because are no words I can use to describe what he meant to you. I can only say he made a difference in my life and that I will miss my friend.