Gloria Foster, 64; Versatile Actress


Gloria Foster, the consummate African American stage actress who broke casting barriers with her authoritative performances in classical roles usually reserved for white actresses, has died. She was 64.

Foster died Sept. 29 at her home in New York City. The cause of death was diabetes, according to her former husband, Clarence Williams III.

In an acting career that spanned nearly four decades, the New York actress with the warm, deep-toned voice of a bassoon won numerous acting awards, including three Obies, a Drama Desk and a Theater World award.


Foster is perhaps most familiar to moviegoers for her role in “The Matrix,” in which she played the Oracle, a seer who sends Keanu Reeves on his surreal mind-bending mission through the matrix.

But it was the stage where she made her mark.

Despite her versatility and critical acclaim in roles typically reserved for whites, Foster is best known for two plays in which she played African Americans.

In 1963, she portrayed 27 characters in the play “In White America,” an overview of the black American experience, from life aboard 18th century slave ships to the 20th century crusade for civil rights. Critics singled out for praise her portrayal of the teenage black girl who was the first to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

And in 1995 she won acclaim on Broadway in “Having Our Say” as the sweet-natured, serene, 103-year-old Sadie Delany. The play was based on the Delany sisters’ best-selling memoir.

Mary Alice, who played the outspoken, feisty 101-year-old Bessie Delany opposite Foster, said their first performances in Princeton, N.J., were filled with three generations of Delanys who were stunned by their likeness to the real sisters.

“They wanted to know if we had met them, because we were acting just like them,” Alice said. “We had not even met them yet.”

Foster was born in Chicago and raised by her grandparents in Janesville, Wis. Her grandparents did not approve of her decision to pursue a career in theater.

“My grandparents didn’t know theater, other than vaudeville. Parents did not encourage children to go into such a field because there was no model for that. There was no theater that showed African Americans in their true form. Their goals were education,” she told the New York Amsterdam News in 1995.

But Foster’s godmother supported her dream to be an actress and served as a role model. It was through her godmother, Foster said, that she became interested in the Greek mythology she later gravitated toward onstage.

She trained at the Goodman Theatre School of Drama in Chicago. She moved to New York in 1963 and walked into an open audition for Martin B. Duberman’s “In White America.” There she won her first Obie and a Drama Desk award for best performance off-Broadway.

Fellow actors prized Foster as an actor’s actor, and directors sought her out. It was during a 30-year association with producer Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and numerous other off-Broadway performances, that she got to play many of the classical roles she loved, including Medea, Jocasta and Hecuba, Andromache and Clytemnestra.

Foster respectfully disagreed with playwright August Wilson’s assertion that black actors should perform only African American roles. “There will be multicultural casting in this country,” she said in an interview with the Seattle Times in 1997.

“Otherwise, what do we call it America for?”

Foster believed that the 1960s represented a “vital period for the African American actor.”

“We were working and practicing our craft,” she said in the New York Amsterdam News interview. “It was the beginning of the Negro Ensemble. Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was running. ‘Happy Ending’ was going on at the Negro Ensemble Company. We were also working at the New York Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare in the Park.”

But by 1995 Foster told Newsday she felt discouraged by the paucity of plays that starred, or even spoke to, black Americans.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the situation so bad,” she said of race relations. “I see separation more than ever--at public affairs, with the mayors, any issue on TV, in the theater. I’ve been at plays where I am the only black person at the theater and, once I see what’s on the stage, I realize a lot of people have no reason to be there. It doesn’t include them.”

Foster made her last stage appearance in a 1999 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts.