Billie Allen, Pioneering Black Stage Actress, Dies at 90

News   Billie Allen, Pioneering Black Stage Actress, Dies at 90
 
Billie Allen, an African-American actress who was involved in original productions of such pivotal stage works as A Raisin in the Sun and Funnyhouse of a Negro, died Dec. 29 at her home in Manhattan. She was 90.

Ms. Allen received a Lortel Award nomination for her direction of a 2006 production of Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse. She had a special connection to the piece, having played the lead role of the disturbed young woman Sarah in the 1964 premiere of the drama. Also in 1964, on Broadway, she was a member of the cast of James Baldwin’s play about racial intolerance, Blues for Mister Charlie, playing a small part while understudying the lead role portrayed by Diana Sands.

Ms. Allen was an understudy, too, in the famous 1959 premiere of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Eventually, she assumed the role of Beneatha Younger. She became friends with her fellow cast member in that play, Ruby Dee, and later directed Dee in Miss Lucy’s Eyes in 2001.

Off-Broadway, Ms. Allen directed as often as she acted. Her directing credits included The Brothers and Day Trips. As an actor, she was in Take a Giant Step, Black Monday, Trainer Dean Liepolt and Company, The Ofay Watcher and Every Night When the Sun Goes Down.

Wilhelmina Louise Allen was born in Richmond, VA, on Jan. 13, 1925, to Mamie Wimbush, a teacher, and William Allen, an actuary. Early on, she studied both acting and dance, and early roles on Broadway, in Caribbean Carnival and Virgil Thompson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, were dance oriented. Other Broadway credits included Critic’s Choice and A Teaspoon Every Four Hours.

She had a recurring role as a WAC on the 1950s sitcom "The Phil Silvers Show," an anomaly at a time when black actors did not typically take part in predominantly white programs. She was married to the composer and arranger Luther Henderson from 1981 to 2003. A previous marriage, to Duane H. Grant, Sr., ended in divorce. She is survived by two children from that marriage, Duane Grant, Jr., and Carolyn Grant.

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