As an actress, Jane White had to transcend a number of formidable obstacles during her brilliant career, none more daunting than the color line. Often, she was considered too white or too Black for parts. Nevertheless, she triumphed and left a distinguished theatrical mark before her death on July 24. She was 88.
White, a resident of Greenwich Village, succumbed to cancer, according to Joan K. Harris, her longtime friend, confidant and co-executor.
On and off stage, White was a striking figure, her diction impeccable, interpretations memorable and integrity unimpeachable.
Theatergoers, particularly those with a love for the classics, marveled at her role of Kate in the “The Taming of the Shrew,” during the Shakespeare Festival in 1960. She was equally impressive three years later as Helen of Troy in “The Trojan Women.”
White won two coveted Obie awards, first as Volumnia in “Coriolanus” in 1965-66 and as the Princess in “Love’s Labor’s Lost” in 1971.
By that time, she had been married since 1962 to New York restaurateur Alfredo Viazzi after a short courtship. Three years later they moved to Europe only to return to America in the late 1960s. Viazzi died of a heart attack on Dec. 28, 1987, aged 66.
The above stage successes followed on the heels of her first Broadway appearance in “Once Upon a Mattress,” in which she encountered the first of a succession of racial slights when she was asked to lighten her already fair complexion.
Her light complexioned father, Walter White, an executive secretary of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955, took full advantage of this trait in his infiltration of Ku Klux Klan meetings in the 1920s.
That prominent surname also gave her a bit of leverage in those early years coming of age in Harlem, where she was born. Even while attending Smith College and the New School, the theater beckoned. However, the moment those aspirations landed her in the spotlight, the situation became problematic.
“I’ve just always been too ‘white’ to be ‘Black’ and too ‘Black’ to be ‘white,’ which gets to you after a while, particularly when the roles keep passing you by,” lamented White to an interviewer in 1968.
A scarcity of roles in the theater didn’t impede White from pursuing parts on television in soap operas and other shows, and even cameos in such films as “Beloved” (1998), in which she played Lady Jones, a school teacher. She was also a Park Avenue madam in “Klute” with Jane Fonda, and in her last Broadway appearance, she portrayed an aging soubrette Solange LaFitte in the 2001 revival of “Follies.”
When she wasn’t performing on stage or in the movies, she was often featured at clubs, where her cabaret act included songs and chatter. She even, on occasion, mounted her one-woman show, “Jane White Who?” which was developed some years after her return from Europe in the late ’60s.
Interlaced with all of her performances was her political activism, particularly in association with the NAACP.
From 1976, when she shared the limelight with the late Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to celebrate the 17th birthday of NAACP stalwart Roy Wilkins, to the NAACP’s Crisis magazine centennial event at the New York Times last year, White was present to carry on her father’s illustrious legacy and to underscore her own.
Among those historic milestones, White was the keynote speaker at an event to put in place “The Great Tablet” in honor of the radical abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, where he carried out his raid that triggered the Civil War.
This event, in the summer of 2006, completed a mission began by W.E.B. Du Bois and associates in 1932, when they were first turned away.
“I, the daughter of Walter White, represent the Great Niagara Movement,” White said on that occasion five years ago. “Its force and principles live on in today’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We will now place flowers on behalf of those 29 futurists who launched the Niagara Movement in 1905.
“I hereby call on Justice Laura Blackburne, a member…of the Crisis’ board, to join me in placing roses in honor of John Brown, Dr. Du Bois and the Niagara Movement. Let others who feel attached to the Niagara Movement join us. I place a rose for the Niagara Movement,” White concluded.
White was cremated and a memorial service is being planned for the near future.