“Black Theatre is clearly alive and well in America,” Paul Carter Harrison wrote in the Historical Notes to Bert Andrews’ “In the Shadow of the Great White Way,” “it exists as a vital contribution to American cultural life, no longer in the shadow of the Great White Way.” Harrison who as a playwright, a wide-ranging intellectual and historian did as much as anyone to ensure the vitality and longevity of Black theater died Dec. 27 or 28 in Atlanta.
He was 85.
Harrison was as prolix as he was profound in his understanding of the history of Black theater and African American arts in general. That knowledge was shared in a variety of ways, through his Obie Award winning play “The Great MacDaddy,” his Blues Operetta, “Anchorman,” his book “The Drama of Nommo” and his anthology “Totem Voices.” Moreover, his long association with the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) and his classroom erudition, particularly as writer-in-residence at Columbia College in Chicago, were venues for him to further inform and promote the essential elements of Black culture, always with a concern to show its provenance to African traditions.
Whether in his books, essays or plays, Harrison was determined to solidify the African and African American linkage, and nowhere was it evoked with such vigor and mythical relevance than in “The Great MacDaddy” (1974) with its tropes on African folklore and tales, with a nod to classical Greek legends. This narrative style is more specifically explored in “The Drama of Nommo,” where the integration of dance, liturgy, and spiritual memory are deftly defined and explored.
The last time I heard from Paul occurred when I was included in an email thread to his friends and mainly directed to the guitarist Kelvyn Bell on Dec. 8, 2016 and explaining why he would not be able to honor an invitation.
“Kelvyn,” he began, “…you know I’d join the set if I was in the country…but I don’t plan to be in NY until after the THAW! Meantime, enjoy the HOLIDAZE and the Event which I’m sure will be very leavening for the spirit…right along here in the era of AFFIRMATIVE RACISM!”
Evident here is Harrison’s typical linguistic flair and a way of personalizing and addressing some of the common issues of the day. And the “thaw” is an obvious indication he was at that point somewhere in a warmer clime.
But to be invited to a jazz event was another vector of his interests, and music, like dance, was never too far from his literary and theatrical pursuits.
In 2004, during an interview with HistoryMakers, Harrison discussed in detail his odyssey that began March 1, 1936, in New York where he was born. That Harrison acquired a polyglot of cultural influences was unavoidable since both his parents from the Carolinas were involved in the Garvey movement, the AME Church, and the Gullah tradition. He attended P.S. 113 and graduated from Commerce High School in 1952. As a teenager he was deeply engaged in the art and politics of Greenwich Village, spending time with Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans, Billy Dee Williams and a coterie of jazz musicians. After a stint at New York University, he transferred to Indiana
University in 1953 where he continued his association with artists and musicians such as David Baker and Freddie Hubbard.
By 1957, he had earned a B.A. in psychology and returned to New York and five years later had an M.A. in psychology and phenomenology from the New School of Social Research. He set aside plans for a higher degree, beginning his intrepid ventures abroad to Spain and the Netherlands. While living in Amsterdam he was in the company of a veritable U.N. of friends and associates and began seriously pursuing a writing career with screenplays and essays. From 1968 to 1970, he taught theater at Howard University, where such aspiring writers and actresses as Phylicia Rashad and Pearl League were among his students. It was also an environment steeped in radical ideas and movements, all of which substantially touched Harrison.
After his stay at Howard, he began teaching at the State University of California at Sacramento, and subsequently wrote and directed “Tabernacle” and Melvin Van Peebles’ “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death.” In 1973, his own play “The Great MacDaddy” was produced by the NEC, earning him an Obie Award. His next teaching post was at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst from which he was later professor emeritus. His film scripts include “Lord Shango” (1975) and “Youngblood” (1978) (not to be confused with the novel by John Oliver Killens).
Harrison was hired by the Theatre Center of Chicago’s Columbia College in 1976 where he served as professor and writer-in-residence until his retirement in 2002. Along with his teaching at Columbia he directed ETA’s acclaimed production of Marsha Leslie’s “The Trial of One Short Sighted Black Woman” (1996) and “Doxology” (2002).
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Fonteyn Harrison. No cause has been determined.