John Henry Redwood, 60; Stage and Film Actor Wrote Popular Plays About African American Life

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Times Staff Writer

John Henry Redwood, an actor with a deep baritone voice and a football player’s build who was especially known for his roles in August Wilson’s plays, died June 17 at home in south Philadelphia of heart disease. He was 60.

Redwood -- who also wrote several popular plays of his own, including “The Old Settler,” which was made into a PBS television film in 2001 -- started his acting career in New York in the 1970s while also studying to be a Protestant minister.

He continued his studies in religion but decided not to be ordained. “I took my writing and my acting as my ministry,” he told the Boston Globe in February.


His combined interest in religion and theater caused him some problems. “I won’t use the Lord’s name in vain,” he said. “I’ve lost a couple of jobs because of that.”

Through the 1980s and ‘90s, Redwood appeared in a number of Wilson plays about African American life, including “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences.” He made his leading role as Troy Maxson in “Fences” a specialty and performed it in cities across the country.

Redwood began writing his own plays in 1985, intending to create good stage roles for himself. But, as it turned out, he wrote most of his leading roles for women.

His early years in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- where he spent most of his time with his mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother -- proved to be a powerful resource for his plays.

“I’ve come to have the opinion that we, as African Americans, have survived on this continent because of the strengths and the perseverance of the black women,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News in January 2001. “We African American writers would be remiss if we didn’t tell their story.”

Two of Redwood’s plays in particular met with broad success. “The Old Settler” was about two sisters living in Harlem and what happens when a young Southern man moves into their neighborhood. It toured the country, with performances at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1998.


His 2001 play “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs” -- the title was taken from signs Redwood saw in the segregated South in the early 1960s -- is about an African American woman in North Carolina who is raped and the effect that has on her family.

Before the play was introduced at the Philadelphia Theater Company, artistic director Sara Garonzik asked members of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and leaders of the local Jewish community to read it, urging them to support the play.

Her efforts led to strong endorsements by both groups and several panel discussions around the opening of the play, including one on the history of African American/Jewish relations and another on the history of racism in the United States.

In subtle ways, Redwood said, he experienced racism throughout his life. After high school, he won an athletic scholarship to Kansas State University, but lost it when he took part in a desegregation demonstration there. He went on to serve in the Marines and later finished college at St. John’s University in New York City. He earned two master’s degrees, in history and religion, from Fordham University in New York.

When he began writing plays in the mid-1980s, he was told that “playwrights like me are allowed to succeed only one at a time,” he said in an interview with the Boston Globe in 1999. That didn’t stop him, either.

Along with stage acting, Redwood had roles in several feature films, including “Mr. Holland’s Opus” in 1995.


But the theater was his life. This year he was touring the country with a one-man show, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” by James Still, about the life of Alonzo Fields, a White House butler under four U.S. presidents, from Herbert Hoover to Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was performed at the Pasadena Playhouse last winter.

“Alonzo Fields was an extremely intelligent man, a very warm-hearted man, and a consummate professional,” Redwood said of his character. He was scheduled to tour with the play into early 2004.

Redwood, who was divorced, is survived by four children and two grandchildren. Donations may be made in his name to the American Cancer Society.