As we conclude the deserving clamor around what would be the 96th birthday of the great jazz musician, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, another notable born a month before, July 12, 1920, was actress Beah Richards. There may be no national recognition of Richards and her film and theatrical acclaim, but she was a powerful presence in whatever role she chose. (We should note that in some places her date of birth is 1926.)
Born Beulah Elizabeth Richardson in Vicksburg, Miss., she left her birth place for New York City in 1950. Having attended college (she was a graduate of Dillard University in New Orleans) and studied acting in San Diego, she felt prepared for the stage. It took three years before she landed a part in an off-Broadway production of “Take a Giant Step.”
Despite a sterling performance, the scripts did not flow her way until the 1960s, when she was a member of a national touring company for a production of “Raisin in the Sun.” In 1962, she had a small part in “The Miracle Worker,” and five years later, director Otto Preminger tapped her for co-starring role in “Hurry, Sundown.” Apparently, he had been deeply impressed with her acting after seeing her perform in James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner.” She earned a Tony nomination for best actress.
She credited the influence and mentoring of Frank Silvera, who directed her in “The Amen Corner,” as pivotal to her acting career. He told her “don’t act, just be.”
Silvera was also an activist with a strong sense of self-determination and Black pride, and some of that pride obviously touched Richards, who refused to use the word “Negro” and defined herself as a “Black” woman.
That same year, in 1967, Richards won an Oscar nomination for best Supporting Actress for her role as Sidney Poitier’s mother in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” She lost to Estelle Parsons for her role in “Bonnie and Clyde.”
What followed was a string of appearances in such plays and musicals as “Purlie Victorious” by Ossie Davis and “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman. In 1988, she won an Emmy for her performance in “Frank’s Place.”
One of the best websites on Richards’ career appears to be encyclopedia.com, which notes, “Richards had a distinguished career in television. She was seen on ‘Sanford and Son,’ ‘Hill St. Blues,’ ‘L.A. Law,’ ‘Highway to Heaven’ and ‘Designing Women,’ as well as in a recurring role on ‘ER.’ She also appeared in the miniseries, ‘Roots: The Next Generation.’”
Throughout her acting career, Richards was never too busy to write her own plays and poems, including “Keep Climbing, Girls,” a poem that was published by Simon & Schuster in 2006 and turned into an inspirational book for girls’ power. LisaGay Hamilton wrote an introduction to the book, with illustrations by R. Gregory Christie.
“A Black Woman Speaks” (1974) is another book of her poems. In the preface, she spoke of the need to “see how it is that Blacks and whites agree so little culturally.” Her views on the impact of a segregated society and on the prejudices against women are clear in her verse. She speaks to white women, urging them to remember “history,” and she cites women of both races as victims of white supremacists. Here is one stanza from one of the poems she dedicates to the role of Black women who nursed and nurtured white babies:
“You were afraid to nurse your young
lest fallen breast offend your master’s sight
and he should flee to firmer loveliness.
And so you passed them, your children, on to me.
Flesh that was your flesh and blood that was your blood
drank the sustenance of life from me.
And as I gave suckle I knew I nursed my own child’s enemy.
I could have lied,
told you your child was fed till it was dead of hunger.
But I could not find the heart to kill orphaned innocence.
For as it fed, it smiled and burped and gurgled with content
and as for color knew no difference.
Yes, in that first while
I kept your sons and daughters alive.”
These were convictions she demonstrated as a director and in the classrooms where she taught.
The first of her three plays was “All’s Well That Ends,” which deals with segregation. The second, “One Is a Crowd,” was produced in Los Angeles in 1971. She played the lead role in this three-act drama about a Black singer who seeks revenge against a white man who has destroyed her family. In 1979, she presented her one-woman show, “An Evening with Beah Richards.”
Although stricken with emphysema, Richards continued to excel, delivering a remarkable performance on “The Practice,” an ABC-TV legal drama in 2000. For this performance she won an Emmy Award, only a few days before her death on Sept. 14, 2000.
Among her many honors was the Paul Robeson Pioneer Award and her induction into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. She was also voted into the Black Filmmaker Hall of Fame in 1974.
What Richards wrote in “Keep Climbing, Girls” personified her own ambitions and determination: “The only way to make a bid
for a girl’s equality is to climb right up to the topper-most bough
of the very tallest tree.”