My heart was broken on the afternoon of Aug. 26, when I learned that a lovely lady who’d been like a mother to me had left this earth. Early Sunday morning at 3:46 a.m., Grace L. Jones—president of AUDELCO, an organization which recognizes excellence in Black theater—made her transition at age 90 due to heart issues. Ms. Grace was president of AUDELCO since 2005 and served in this role until her passing. In 2015 the National Black Theatre Festival honored her with a Living Legend Award.
I met Ms. Grace decades ago and she invited me to be on AUDELCO’s board of directors and nominating committee. I was so honored by her invitation that I accepted, and was immediately struck by her love for theater and her dedication to supporting and recognizing the Black theater community. I called her Ms. Grace sometimes, and other times I called her Ma; she answered affectionately to both. If there was a problem I was facing in my personal life, I could call her on the phone vent to her. She would listen quietly, and then would calmly and sweetly give me her always wise and motherly advice. I told her that Bambi, her natural-born daughter, would simply have to share her with me. (She agreed and said Bambi didn’t have a problem with that. Thank you, Bambi.) Ms. Grace accompanied me countless times to Broadway or off-Broadway performances, and we would wait around to say hello to the cast, and everyone would smile as they stepped out and saw Ms. Grace standing there. Everyone knew who she was and everyone loved and respected her. I’ll never forget how beautifully dressed she was, always so elegant. And Ms. Grace was so much fun. I can’t believe I won’t hear her voice on the phone again, or see her smiling face. God, I miss her and always will.
Jackie Jefferies, a board member of AUDELCO shared, “I was honored when Ms. Grace asked me to become part of AUDELCO’s board of directors. She was like a mother, a mentor, a friend. We spent so many years going to plays. And we spent so many late nights, filled with hard work, laughter and love coordinating the AUDELCO Awards. What I will miss most about Ms. Grace, our beloved president, is her love, commitment and dedication to the AUDELCO Awards and keeping Ms. Vivian Robinson’s vision alive. I will always be grateful for her dedication. She was an awesome leader and did things by any means necessary—she was going to make the AUDELCO Awards happen. She wanted to make sure that people of color were honored for their craftsmanship. A. Curtis Farrow and I were just talking recently, about how, at her age, she would get on a bus or train to go to a show. She was a living example of how to live life to the fullest. She will be greatly missed. I want to send my blessings to her daughter Bambi and the family and A. Curtis Farrow and the Irving Street Repertory staff for their undying commitment to AUDELCO. To the theater community at large, thank you for all your love and support.”
Rome Neal, artistic theatre director and chairman of the board of directors of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, found out about Ms. Grace passing Sunday and posted it on Facebook. He remarked, “Every time I saw a gesture or the thoughts of sympathy and condolences for her and her family on Facebook, I thought she would be tickled to know that so many people are showing so much love for her. We had conversations for hours and when she felt that people showed love for her soul shined. Grace is still here wheeling the show. Whatever moves a person makes, you have to think, would Grace Jones want it like this? You have to appreciate the love that she put in. Ms. Grace has given such commitment and love to AUDELCO. She will truly be missed. She will be remembered for all the love, the energy and the commitment that she has put into AUDELCO all these years. We did three tributes to her for her work with AUDELCO at the Nuyorican Poets Café and she loved it. So many shows she and I went to see, she would get on the bus to see these shows with her walker to save money. She saved every penny of AUDELCO’s money to go toward the work. Her commitment to Vivian Robinson and her legacy is phenomenal. She stayed so true to Vivian’s legacy that it became her legacy. She took Vivian’s legacy and kept it going and at many points she didn’t want to take credit for the work because she knew Vivian was the founder. But this is part of Grace Jones’ legacy also, she was the president for 13 years. People don’t realize that when the money wasn’t there Ms. Grace borrowed money from family members to make it happen. She did the legwork to make sure the programs were in place, and the nominees were contacted. Just like Vivian, she gave her life to AUDELCO, she gave her life to folks in Black theater because she loved it. She loved to be able to say that this show deserves recognition for excellence. If folks appreciate and miss Queen Mother Grace L. Jones, [then] just like people ask you to donate toward a cause, it’s time to become a member of AUDELCO and make this particular award ceremony to come special. She would want people to become members of AUDELCO and support this organization that she loved and gave her life for. She wanted this organization to thrive, it needs funding. It needs support, this is the time, it is now. When people like Vivian and Grace give their lives for an organization like this, then we need to be committed to this organization in any way we can. We don’t want her life to be in vain, like she didn’t want Vivian’s vision to be in vain.”
George Faison, choreographer, founder of Firehouse Theatre, and co-host of past AUDELCO ceremonies, said of his friend of many years, “You know how much I loved Grace and how much she stood for the Black Community. She took up the mantle from the AUDELCO women and carried it on. A. Curtis Farrow and her daughter and the other young people that she left, are emboldened with her spirit and courage to represent the legacy of Black theater. The AUDELCO Awards that they will have in the fall will be the biggest tribute. We can only be glad that we had that kind of example to lead us because she filled in the gap and we will carry on her legacy. Bambi, I love you, you’re your mother’s daughter—carry on. We must love her, respect her and remember her!”
Chapman Roberts, singer, actor, producer and musical arranger said, “Grace Jones was the embodiment of the AUDLECO Awards, which reaches out to commemorate the accomplishments of African-American artists in theater. With the ascension of Kofi Anan, the first Black African security general of the U.N.; playwright Neil Simon; Senator John McCain; Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul; and AUDELCO President Grace Jones, they’re all in the realm of the irreplaceable, each in their own right.”
A. Curtis Farrow, founder of Irving Street Repertory, executive producer AUDELCO Awards and a member of the board of directors for AUDELCO, said of his close friend. “Mother Jones was someone who God smiled upon and gave her a light that shined so brightly and was so anointed and she did not mind sharing that light with others. She would take her magnificent, mighty light that God blessed her with and say ‘here you can have some, here you can have some,’ and she was truly God’s light sharer here on earth. I think the best tribute that we can give to her is the light that she gave all of us, for us to use it and she would want us to share it.”
Waddy, technical director and stage manager for AUDELCO for 15 years, affectionately remarked, “Ms. Grace was my mom. She called my biological mom, who was not doing well at the time and told her that she was going to take care of me. And she has been there ever since. She was a real mother and those that were fortunate enough to be that close to her were blessed. I will miss her welcome when she saw you, the big smile on her face and you just felt the love come out. She was really genuine. She used to make me laugh when she would say, ‘I’m the original Grace Jones,’ and that she was. Her family is going to miss her, her friends are going to miss her, AUDELCO is going to miss her and the church is going to miss her. We started working together in Abyssinian Baptist Church, in Aby/tech, the audio visual arm of the church.”
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, actor, playwright and director, shared, “I think her death put a big hit on our whole community. Ms. Grace was such a champion. She exuded what it means to be Black royalty in the theater community. To be in her presence was validation to let us know we were worthy and that we mattered. Just to know that she was there let you know that what you were doing as an artist wasn’t in vain. Her passion leaves a big void for us in our theater community, but it also fortifies us to know that this most gracious and beautiful angel is protecting us. I remember I would be nominated for an AUDELCO Award and I knew three days before and Ms. Grace would call me and tell me and I would sit there and not say anything, because she was taking the time to call me and let me know, and I appreciated how she would call every nominee personally, even if that was 100 people.”
Ralph Carter, actor, author, member of the board of directors for AUDELCO and a nominating committee member recalled, “In all kinds of weather we weathered many storms. We went in a blizzard to find African-American theater. Where people of color were, we would go. I learned from her wherever Black theater is we should go on behalf of AUDELCO. We went as a team. Because in that group of artists [is] maybe a diamond in the rough. There were artists who depended on us to be there and we decided not to let them down. My primary lesson from Grace Jones is wherever African-American theater is, AUDLECO should be there to support it and uplift it. And after every show I didn’t leave her side until she was safely on her transportation back home. What I’m going to miss most about Mother Grace is her smile, her pretty face and her laughter. I used to be able to make her holla!”
Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, board chair of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, Inc. and executive producer of the National Black Theatre Festival, which honored Grace Jones with the Living Legend award stated, “The North Carolina Black Repertory Company/National Black Theatre Festival is deeply saddened to hear about the transition of Mrs. Jones. She was truly a legend and pioneer in the Black Theatre and she will be missed. We are glad that we were able to honor her with a Living Legend Award in 2015. She was a regular attendee and supporter of the Festival. May she rest in peace.”
Saturday, Sept. 1 at 5 p.m., I will be on Felipe Luciano’s live show “Latin Roots,” on WBAI, 99.5FM, speaking to him about Grace Jones, I hope everyone can tune in.