Several generations of New York City's African-American theatre community were in attendance at an Oct. 15 memorial for actress Gloria Foster, who died on Sept. 29. Among the speakers were actresses Ruby Dee, Cicely Tyson and Mary Alice and actors Al Freeman, Jr., Geoffrey Holder and Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
In the audience, meanwhile, were director Woodie King, Jr., actor Ossie Davis, actress Estelle Parsons, director Emily Mann and Joseph Papp's widow Gail Papp. A small image of Foster, tied to a yellow rose, adorned every seat in LuEsther Hall at the Public Theater.
The proceedings were overseen by Judith Rutherford James, the producer who worked with Foster at the beginning of her career, in 1963's In White America, and at the end of her career, in 1995's Having Our Say on Broadway.
Of In White America, which launched Foster, much was said. Particularly noted was the final scene in the work, in which author Martin B. Duberman endeavored to relate, through a chronological patchwork of texts, the untold history of blacks in this country. The scene required Foster to play a 13-year-old Arkansas girl who tries to enter her Little Rock school, following the Supreme Court ruling forbidding segregation, only to be turned away by a rabidly angry racist mob crying "lynch her!".
Duberman said that, during rehearsals of In White America, he and the director had considered following the Little Rock section with one additional scene, but nothing they tried worked. "Gloria's heartbreaking performance so drained the audience, they were unwilling to pay attention to any post-Little Rock scene."
In White America was captured on record, and Duberman's remarks were followed by the playing of the Little Rock scene. Foster's throbbing, pained voice rang through the auditorium, created much the same effect it had in 1963.
Tyson (who was Foster's sister-in-law when the latter was married to Clarence Williams III) remembered Foster's "unceasing dedication to her profession and her talent." Tyson said the two did not often see each other, but regularly indulged in three-hour-long telephone conversations. She had, in fact, planned to make such a call a couple days before Foster died, but was momentarily distracted and forgot her intention.
Tyson and several others commented that Foster's eyes forever bore a look of pain, while a smile was never absent from her face. Duberman remembered her as intensely shy, while James recalled her regal presence.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson injected a bit a levity into the evening. The actor co-starred with Foster in A Raisin in the Sun at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1999. "A lot of people thought there would be a lot of trouble," he recalled. "Here was a strong-willed, opinionated actress. And then there's me. People thought we would clash. But, from the moment I walked on that stage, I tried to learn as much as possible from her."
The actor elicited laughter from the crowd with his dead-on imitation of Foster, delivering passive-aggressive orders with a honeyed delivery. "You tell him," said Ruben-Santiago in Foster's voice. "You the young lion. You can do whatever you want to. Tell the director you don't want that song there."
Santiago-Hudson also related how he tried to bring the revival of Raisin to Broadway. Armed with a cast which included himself, Foster and Viola Davis and having already raised $1.2 million in backing, he entered the offices of New York's theatre owners, only to be rebuffed with comments that "the play's not really that good," and that Foster "was too articulate."
Late in the memorial, Geoffrey Holder roused the crowd to their feet, urging a standing ovation for Foster. The event concluded with a recording of Foster's scene in the film "The Matrix."
Ms. Foster came to New York City from the Midwest in 1961 and quickly established herself as a powerful performer able to play characters far beyond her young years and scant life experience. In 1965, she became the first black performer to play Medea in New York. She went on to portray other classical parts, including The Cherry Orchard's Madame Ranevskaya, Long Day's Journey Into Night's Mary Tyrone, Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, the title role in Brecht's Mother Courage, Volumnia in Coriolanus and both Titania and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Ms. Foster first made her mark, however, in the Off-Broadway historical drama, In White America, in which author Martin B. Duberman endeavored to relate, through a chronological patchwork of texts, the untold history of blacks in this country. Ms. Foster's agent, Ernestine McClendon, sent her to a cold reading of the play, though she didn't think her client was right for the project. The actress won the job, though, and played several parts in the drama, including a woman whose husband had been lynched, Sojourner Truth, and, most memorably, an Arkansas girl who tries to enter her Little Rock school following the Supreme Court ruling forbidding segregation, only to be faced with a rabidly angry racist mob.
She made an indelible impression upon audiences and critics. The Village Voice called her "unforgettable"; John Simon said "Miss Foster was magnificent"; and the New York Times' Howard Taubman declared, "Someone should write a play for Miss Foster."
And, indeed, many plays were offered to her, but she chose to remain with In White America for a year. "Young people today, I think, are thinking in terms of stepping stones," said Ms. Foster. "I don't know that I ever thought that way. It sounds ridiculous, but I was always thinking in terms of a more difficult role."
Her selectiveness often meant audiences waited years between Foster performances. Over her entire career, she acted in perhaps two dozen professional productions. Moreover, she was rarely tempted by television and film offers and steadfastly refused to sign on for a series. She did appear is two landmark independent films of the '60s, Michael Roemer's "Nothing Like a Man" and Shirley Clarke's "The Cool World" (where she met her one-time husband, Clarence Williams III). But her most famous film part by far is that of The Oracle in the sci-fi hit, "The Matrix."
Ms. Foster's next major theatre role met her exacting criterion. Judith Rutherford Marechal, who produced In White America, wanted her to play Medea. The casting drew attention and controversy. "There was no question who I was," said Foster. "I was an African-American actress. That was the only identity I had. They had a very difficult time getting support."
The production, which ran at the now-defunct Martinique Theatre, opened to mixed reviews, but Ms. Foster was widely praised. She won her second Obie Award for the portrayal. Her first was for In White America.
Ms. Foster had first played Medea at the Goodman School of Drama, where she studied acting and was one of the few African-American students in her class. She was born in Chicago's south side on Nov. 15, 1936. She never knew her father and, after her mother was hospitalized for mental illness, she was taken in by her maternal grandparents Clyde and Elinor Sudds and raised on their farm in rural Janesville, Wisconsin.
At the Goodman School, Ms. Foster was instructed by Bella Itkin, who cast the mature young woman in towering classic roles, thus whetting Ms. Foster's appetite for classical drama. "At the Goodman, you just got the parts before you knew it, because that was what you were supposed to do," she remembered. "Those were the roles that were offered to you. You never thought about it."
Against all odds, given the time, she was offered similar roles in New York. Ms. Foster moved to Manhattan shortly before playing Ruth in a touring production of A Raisin in the Sun starring Claudia McNeill, her first professional job as an actress. Following In White America, she became that rare thing: an African-American actress around whom producers and directors built productions. The Public Theater's Joseph Papp was a early and major supporter, casting her in all black mountings of Chekhov and Shakespeare. In 1980, Papp announced that Ms. Foster would be Mother Courage in an upcoming staging before he had even asked the actress whether she would take the part. Other early collaborators including the Open Theatre's Joseph Chaikin and director Andrei Serban.
In most of her appearances, she utterly commanded the stage, in part due to the monumental figures she routinely played, but also because of her fierce, passionate acting style. Critics rolled out the superlatives to describe her performances. She was "compelling," "substantial," a "thunderbolt," a "majestic, full-voiced, statuesque and stunning actress."
In a certain sense (and despite her progressive political and cultural views), she was very much an actress of the old school, an artist who created theatre with a capital "T." This propensity toward high drama often worked against her, and reviewers criticized her Ranevskaya and Mary Tyrone as inappropriately willful. But, as Ms. Foster herself admitted, she was never interested in playing victims.
With the passing of the progressive casting trends of the '60s and '70s, the roles dried up. From 1980 on, her stage appearances were seldom. One of the few noteworthy credits of this period was Bill Gunn's The Forbidden City, in which she played a ferocious, social-climbing mother described, by Michael Feingold of The Village Voice, as "out of The Silver Cord complicated by Mommie Dearest, Chekhov's Arkadina, and Cocteau's Les parents terribles." She won a Drama Desk Award nomination for her work.
In her final New York stage appearance — and one of her few Broadway turns — she played against type, embodying 105-year-old Sadie, the sweeter, quieter Delaney sister in the storytelling drama, Having Our Say. Mary Alice played the feisty Bessie. The play opened at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, in February 1995, and went on to run to standing-room-only audiences. It then transferred to Broadway's Booth Theatre. Ms. Foster was acclaimed by critics, and stayed with the show for six months. No further New York work followed, however.
Ironically, her last professional stage role was the same as her first — A Raisin in the Sun, this time in 1999 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Ms. Foster's career was examined in Role of a Lifetime (Back Stage Books), a book by this writer which appeared in 1999.
Commenting on the scarcity of roles in her later years, she soberly observed, "At a certain point, I faced a recognition that I was not going to work as much as I wanted to. As long as my desires went toward major roles and difficult roles, perhaps I thought I couldn't expect any more.
"What probably saved me is that I've always felt it was important to live; to experience the day; to experience the hurt, the pain, the love. And come your next role, you're so much more vital.
"Everything is an exploration, or building upon what you've learned. I'm not very good at the business of show business. It was an art form, as far as I was concerned."
— By Robert Simonson