22 Dec 2000
Mr. Stewart was 90, and had recently protested the groundbreaking of the Washington Boulevard Performing Arts Center, on the site of his razed theatre in Los Angeles. His troupe was evicted in 1996.
One week before his death, Mr. Stewart appeared in his wheelchair at the groundbreaking, holding a sign that read, "Ebony Rip-Off" as the mayor, members of the city council and officials from the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) spoke, The Times said.The city named the Stewarts in an eminent domain lawsuit, and Ebony lost by summary judgment, daughter Valarie Stewart said. The Stewarts said the troupe fell into debt when they tried to update their space to seismic codes in 1992.
Mr. Stewart co-founded Ebony Showcase with his wife, Edna, in 1950. Mrs. Stewart survives and said the work continues and that the company never stopped producing and working toward the future despite the loss of its venue. A search for a new space continues, daughter Valarie told Playbill On-Line. Mr. Stewart's survivors include children, Christopher, Valarie and Roger and grandchildren Maya, Shelley and Daniel.
Mr. Stewart was born in Manhattan in 1910, and tap danced in jazz clubs and in vaudeville choruses.He was also a comedian. He appeared in shows with Cab Calloway and other luminaries of black theatre of the time, in New York and regionally.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1941 (after having played on stages there) and got acting opportunities in pictures where black folks were seen as happily in service of white people. He was among the sea of African-American actors who played porters and shoe shine men, maids and waiters.
Mr. Stewart played the voice of Br'er Bear in Disney's partially-animated "Song of the South," a 1946 movie considered so racially insensitive by today's standards that it remains in the Disney vaults.
On TV's "Amos 'n' Andy," Mr. Stewart was Lightnin', the lazy janitor, 1951-53. He played Willie, the African guide, on TV's "Ramar of the Jungle" in the 1950s.
His jobs in those roles, however, helped him launch Ebony Showcase Theater. Years later, his theatre work would win him an NAACP lifetime achievement award "for positive portrayals of African Americans and longevity in the theatre." Mr. Stewart and his wife also earned a Living Legend Award from the National Black Theatre Festival in 1995. The award was for their humanitarian work and for their producing. He was inducted into the archive of American television by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, to save his work for future generations.
Performers who acted on the Ebony stage included John Amos, William Shallert, Isabel Sanford, Nichelle Nichols, Margaret Avery and Al Freeman Jr. Directors Gordon Hunt and Boris Sagal were among the directors who worked there.
The Ebony Showcase Theater has a tradition of offering legitimate theatre, concerts, standup comedy and performing arts classes. The company is dedicated to education through entertainment.
"A theatre needs to be more than just a building," Mr. Stewart once wrote. "A culture must be more than a collection of art and music." Ebony Showcase Theater can be found on the web at http://www.ebonyshowcase.org.
— By Kenneth Jones