Celebrating trailblazing icon, activist Diahann Carroll
Zita Allen | 12/5/2019, midnight | Updated on 12/5/2019, midnight
“The Celebration of Life for Diahann Carroll Pays Tribute To A Trailblazing Icon and Activist” at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater began with Tony Award-nominated Denee Benton singing “A Sleepin’ Bee” with a bell-like clarity Carroll must have had when made her critically-acclaimed debut in the legendary musical “House of Flower” in 1954.
The star-studded tribute ended with a gospel choir singing “You Lift Me Up” from the balcony after Dianne Reeves’ soul-stirring rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Black Bird,” which Carroll’s daughter, Suzanne Kay, said her mother specifically requested be sung at the memorial service. Noting that “bird” was English slang for “woman” Kay explained that the Paul McCartney tune was penned during the 1960s Civil Rights Era as a tribute to Black women’s strength and resilience..
Carrol’s strength and beauty were just two of the qualities highlighted from her daughter’s opening welcome to the choir’s final notes rising to the rafters. Like a multi-faceted diamond they sparkled through the life of this exceptionally gifted singer, actress, activist, loving mother, grandmother, aunt, friend and mentor. Her dazzling beauty was captured in larger-than-life photos projected onto the back wall of the dimly lit stge. Her invincible spirit, joie de vivre, sardonic wit, fierce loyalty and more were captured in the anecdotes, by turns touching and hilarious, shared by family and friends of the woman her daughter described as “fabulous, fascinating, and complicated.”
Poems, like the one Lynn Whitfield opened with, by Lucille Clifton, captured a life built more on laughter than tears. Friend Amy Greene contributed a poem she and Carroll agreed the survivor would read at the other’s funeral. It was W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” a poignant portrait of grief: “Stars are not wanted now: put out every one/ Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun/ Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood/ For nothing now can ever come to any good.” Actress Angela Bassett read of Maya Angelou’s powerful poem “When Great Trees Fall” as Harlem School of the Arts violinist Majid Khaliq played. How apropos.
Diahann Carroll was one of the few Blacks, back in the day, who forcing the white gaze to see Black women in living color. Born and bred in NYC, her budding talent was evident when as early as 6-years-old she sang in the Abyssinian Baptist Church children’s choir. It blossomed at Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art and in 1950s TV talent shows. Then, after appeasing her parents with a brief stint at New York University, she exploded. Highlights of her stellar career include appearing in the all-black motion picture “Carmen Jones,” starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte and chock-full of budding talent, like dancers Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavallade and James Truitte. In 1962, Carroll won a Tony Award for “No Strings,“ a Richard Rodgers’ musical written with her in mind. In 1968, she broke the color-barrier and TV ratings record playing a widowed nurse and single-mother in the Emmy nominated, Golden Globe winning NBC sitcom, “Julia.”
Of course, the clear-eyed Carroll joined critics bemoaning the entertinment industry’s failure to make characters played by Black actors less homogenized and more substantial telling one interviewer, “At the moment, we’re presenting the white Negro and he has very little Negro-ness.” Carroll fought to add more than one dimension to her characters in works ranging from in Alex Haley’s epic cultural identity quest, “Roots: The Next Generations” (1979) to the peon to glitz and glam AlBC’s sitcom, “Dynasty,” where as the elegant Dominique Devereaux she traded quips, barbs and slaps with well-heeled adversaries.