Rosetta LeNoire, the African-American actress singer-dancer who founded Off-Broadway's AMAS Musical Theatre and championed the idea of nontraditional casting, died March 17 at the age of 90.
In her career, Ms. LeNoire knew composer-musician Eubie Blake (who was her teacher), Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (who was her godfather) and Orson Welles (who cast her in a famed all-black Macbeth during the Depression). Beyond many roles on and off Broadway and around the country, she played Mother Winslow for eight seasons on TV's "Family Matters."
She lived recently at the Actors' Fund home in Englewood, NJ, and had been in poor health in recent years.
"Many of us performers of color were given opportunities to strut our stuff, emote and whatnot, at her AMAS Repertory Theatre at the church in the West 70s, the location in the West 80s, East 100s, or West 42nd Street," actress Lori Tan Chinn wrote in an e-mail to Playbill On-Line. "She believed that people of all races, creeds, nationalities could and should work together. The name, 'Amas' — to love [in Latin] — was specifically chosen by her to represent all peoples working together. She cast me, an Asian-American actress-singer-dancer, in most of the roles she, herself, had originated on Broadway, when AMAS produced revivals of those productions, and affectionately called me her successor. Throw away the mold, I'm not her successor — just someone who was so thankful she could give me an opportunity to work in a field where all doors and windows seemed to be conventionally closed."
Chinn said one of Ms. LeNoire's signature roles was as Walter Matthau's nurse in the film, "The Sunshine Boys." Ms. LeNoire's theatre company, founded in 1968, originated the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, which would go on to be Tony Award-nominated on Broadway. It also staged Capitol Cakewalk and many other shows. The troupe earned more than 50 Audelco Awards over the years. The AMAS Rosetta LeNoire Musical Theatre Academy offered classes to inner-city kids.
One of the most recent AMAS productions was the 2001 Off-Off-Broadway musical, Little Ham, which commercial producer Eric Krebs plucked up and moved to a brief Off-Broadway run in the hope of getting the quirky show (inspired by a Langston Hughes yarn) to Broadway.
Ms. LeNoire was born Rosetta Oliver Burton in New York City and studied with Betty Cashman, Reginald Beane, Nat Jones and Morris Carnovsky, among others, over the years. Before her life in the theatre she was a bookkeeper, a hat designer, a receptionist, a playground instructor and a telephone operator. Her New York acting debut was as the First Witch in the Federal Theatre Project's Macbeth, directed by Welles in 1936. She also toured with it. A life on the boards followed, working on Broadway (Destry Rides Again, Anna Lucasta, Four Twelves are 48, The Hot Mikado, You Can't Take It With You, A Streetcar Named Desire), summer stock (Westport Country Playhouse) and on tour in plays, musicals and for the USO. She made many film and TV appearances, as well.
Her first marriage to William LeNoire ended in divorce. Her second husband, Egbert F. Brown, predeceased her, according to The New York Times. Her son, William, is among survivors.
In 1988, Actors' Equity Association created the Rosetta LeNoire Award to recognize theatres and producers who seek to hire and promote ethnic minorities and female actors through multi-racial and/or non-traditional casting. Past award winners have included Leland Ball of Sacramento Light Opera, Walter J. Turnbull of the Boys Choir of Harlem, Dennis Zacek and Marcelle McVay of Victory Gardens Theatre and Joseph Papp and The New York Shakespeare Festival, among others.
— By Kenneth Jones