Before she was Beah Richards, a commanding presence on stage, screen and television, she was Beulah Richardson, a political activist with an impressive radical resume. Whether acting or delivering a searing speech at a rally, there was little separation between her two personages. She was as forceful and authentic in her portrayals as she was on the podium demanding justice and equal rights.
Born Beulah Elizabeth Richardson on July 12, 1920 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, her father was a Baptist preacher and her mother a seamstress. In 1948, Beah graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans and two years later moved to New York City.
Essentially, Beah lived two lives, and the acting, writing and literary part vastly overshadowed her various involvements as an activist, particularly her commitment to radical formations such as the Communist Party, Civil Rights Congress, and the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, in which she was a founding member. At times, her two lives overlapped, and this was certainly the case during the Cold War phase of American history when radicals were hounded by government agents and agencies. Beah was linked to William Patterson and his wife, Louise, when the CRC began to take on the government, charging the nation with genocide. Such a cry prompted the FBI and the CIA to take every measure to neutralize organizations and individuals who promoted the overthrow of the government. Beah was just one of several hundred who were hounded, surveilled, and even brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
That harassment and a desire to fulfill another part of her calling led Beah to the stage where she could express her outrage through a number of characters in plays she wrote and those by other notable playwrights such as James Baldwin. In fact her performance in Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” earned her a Tony Award nomination in 1965.
But most film buffs praise her role as Mrs. Prentice in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” where her formidable skills were aligned with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. In this production, Beah was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for a supporting role. She won two Primetime Emmy Awards for her guest roles in the television series “Frank’s Place” in 1988 and two years later for “The Practice.”
The strength of her performances, her determination to play women of integrity and grit endeared her to Black audiences. Her guest appearances are much too numerous to even begin here, though her cameos on “The Cosby Show,” “Sanford and Son,” and “Benson” put her in company with an ensemble of talented African American performers. She completely nailed her role as Alex Haley’s grandmother in “Roots: The Next Generations.”
Along with her political commitments that never waned despite the rigor of acting, there was Beah the writer, including her poetry, plays, essays and books. Her play “All’s Well that Ends” centered on some of the issues she championed off the stage, the struggle against segregation.
Much of what she evinced as a writer, especially as a poet, was foreshadowed during her marches for justice and working in concert with a number of extraordinary Black women such as Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Dorothy Hunton, and Louise Patterson. She was a forerunner in so many aspects of Black self-determination, whether it was defining herself as Black and not Negro, or pushing relentlessly for the recognition of Black women in the various political formations where they were often relegated to the kitchen and secretariat work.
When Beah died Sept. 14, 2000 the mainstream obituaries focused on her acting with only scant attention to her activism. But to a great degree the interrelation between her art and her politics had no division. Just as she was Beulah or Beah she was an indomitable woman of unimpeachable talent and integrity.
An example of Beah’s poetry:
“I speak not mockingly
but I fought for freedom,
I’m fighting now for our unity.
We are women all,
and what wrongs you murders me
and eventually marks your grave
so we share a mutual death at the hand of tyranny.”
“I would that the poor among you could have
seen through the scheme
and joined hands with me,
Then, we being the majority, could long ago have rescued our wasted lives.”