Lloyd Richards, 87; Stage Director Revolutionized Black Theater in America

Times Staff Writer

Lloyd Richards, the stage director who helped launch Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson into the playwriting pantheon, revolutionizing not only black theater but the entire way in which new American drama is shepherded from first draft to polished premiere, has died.

Richards, who won a 1987 Tony Award for directing Wilson's "Fences" and received the National Medal of Arts in 1993, died of heart failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City on Thursday, the evening of his 87th birthday, his son Scott said Friday.

Those remembering him spoke of his influence on playwrights and actors alike, and his role in creating a prominent place for black voices, giving meaty early roles to a bevy of now-famous actors, including Laurence Fishburne, Louis Gossett Jr., Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo and Samuel L. Jackson.

"No black director would be working today if not for him," said Marion McClinton, who in 2001, after a Wilson-Richards partnership that spanned six plays in 14 years, became the first director other than Richards to oversee a play by Wilson on Broadway. "There are no more giants, that's the way I feel. He took something and changed it -- and many lives -- forever."

"Anybody of my generation that was under Lloyd's tutelage got some of the best fathering and nurturing of your creativity that you could get," said Fishburne, who made his Broadway debut under Richards in Wilson's "Two Trains Running."

"He knew how to work with each kind of talent. Whether you were a writer or actor, Lloyd understood talent and how to nurture it and harness it and focus it," Fishburne added in a call from the Mark Taper Forum before his performance in Alfred Uhry's "Without Walls."

As for those who help playwrights give birth to new plays in theaters and new-work festivals around the nation, "we're all sons and daughters of Lloyd," said Jerry Patch, long a leading figure in the field as dramaturge at South Coast Repertory, former head of the Sundance Institute's theater program and now resident artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. "He set up the structure that we all either copied or went in another direction from. Pretty much all play development was in reaction to what Lloyd was doing."

Richards' passing completes a recent trilogy of loss: Benjamin Mordecai, who produced Wilson's plays, died of cancer in May 2005 at age 60, followed by Wilson himself in October, also of cancer and at 60.

"The three of them now gone is almost too much to take," said Gordon Davidson, the former artistic director of L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, who worked closely with Wilson, Richards and Mordecai as, one after another, Wilson's 10-play "cycle" depicting African American life in each decade of the 20th century made its way to L.A. en route to the eventual goal of a commercial staging in New York. Davidson, as co-producer, is working to bring the final play in the cycle, "Radio Golf," to Broadway.

Richards, he said, "was an enabler, and that's a gift. The trouble for all of us is that the theater is written in sand; it just washes away. Remembrance is stronger for August, because his plays will get done. There's a rash of revivals going on now." But although Richards' legacy may be overshadowed by that of the writer he discovered, coached and mentored, Davidson added, Wilson "certainly couldn't have done it without him, and that's a great legacy to have."

Richards grew up in circumstances that could hardly have been less promising for an influential and transformative theater career. Born in Toronto, he moved to Detroit at age 4 with his parents and four siblings. His father, an autoworker, died when he was 9. His mother cleaned houses to make ends meet, but things became dire when she went blind when Richards was 13, he recalled last year in a series of interviews with African American Review.

But Richards, who fell for theater in junior high school, made his way through Wayne University (now Wayne State) in Detroit, trained stateside during 1944-45 as one of the Army Air Forces' famed Tuskegee Airmen and headed for New York in 1947 to make his way as an actor and acting teacher.

There he befriended Sidney Poitier, who was one of his acting students at one point. Richards' big break came when Poitier asked him to direct a play, "Raisin in the Sun," by the then-unknown Hansberry. The drama, which had its premiere in 1959, chronicles the tensions among a black Chicago family after moving into a white neighborhood.

Producers didn't think whites would want to see the show; Richards put some of his own money into it to keep rehearsals going while backers could be found.

"We were told that the theater was not ready for a play about black family life," he told African American Review. But "it ... brought black audiences into the Broadway theater in droves, and everywhere else around the country. It also said that a white audience was very interested in that black family, because they could see themselves represented onstage."

When it came to filming the play, however, Richards told African American Review, he found that barriers in Hollywood were harder to break: "I had not done a film and had not proved myself as a film director. It was the excuse of the time."

Richards did direct the 1995 television version of "The Piano Lesson," the only one of Wilson's plays to make it to the screen.

Richards' next major step came in 1969, when he became artistic director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and its annual National Playwrights Conference, a role that continued until 1999. There he was able to sift through stacks of annual submissions, select the most promising unknowns and bring them to the summer conference in Waterford, Conn., to work on their plays.

One of his hallmarks, recalled Patch, a regular attendee during the late 1970s and early '80s, was Richards' ability to turn a dozen presumably ego-laden, rivalrous playwrights into a team of colleagues who felt they were all in it together -- even outfitting them with matching windbreakers or varsity jackets so they'd stand out as the stars of the event and feel like a team.

Richards' 1979 appointment as artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and dean of the Yale School of Drama, where he remained until 1991, put all the elements in place for the advent of Wilson, whose draft of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" jumped out from Richards' stack of National Playwrights Conference submissions in 1982.

"The characters ... were readily recognizable to me," Richards told The Times in 1988. "They were people I had met."

"Nobody else could have looked at August's work and seen what was there," director McClinton said, "and nobody else was in a position of power" -- like Richards was -- to develop Wilson's typically sprawling scripts at the O'Neill, give them initial stagings at Yale Rep, then hone them further, often cutting scenes and tinkering with different endings. They'd line up a series of stagings in nonprofit regional theaters, including the Taper, the Old Globe, the Seattle Repertory and Chicago's Goodman Theatre. When ready, they'd raise the money to take the shows to Broadway.

Wilson would later tell the New York Times that he regarded Richards as "a kind of surrogate parent."

Although they formed a unique team, Wilson was hardly the only prominent writer Richards championed. Important plays by Athol Fugard and Lee Blessing got their starts at Yale Rep during his tenure; Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, David Henry Hwang, Lanford Wilson and Charles Durang were among those whose scripts he helped polish at the O'Neill Center.

A polite public chill seemed to form between Wilson and Richards when the playwright turned to other directors after their long run together. But Kenny Leon, who directed the premieres of the last two plays in the Wilson cycle, said Friday that Richards was always approachable for advice -- they met in New York two weeks ago and talked about plans for "Radio Golf."

"He was my mentor," Leon said Friday from Atlanta. "He supported my work and told me how proud he was." As for Wilson and Richards, "they had a professional break, but they always respected and loved each other."

Directing, Richards once told the Los Angeles Times, is "the process of teaching the bird to fly. What is essential and important is that I enjoyed the flight of someone else."

He is survived by Barbara Davenport Richards, his wife of nearly 50 years; and two sons, Scott Davenport Richards and Thomas Richards.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday July 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction Richards obituary: An obituary of stage director Lloyd Richards in Saturday's California section described the action in the play "Raisin in the Sun" as taking place after a black Chicago family had moved into a white neighborhood. In fact, the play takes place while the family is preparing for the move. For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday July 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction Lloyd Richards obituary: An obituary of stage director Lloyd Richards in Saturday's California section identified playwright Christopher Durang as Charles Durang.
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