Black Theater Artists In Their Formative Years: Crossing Paths At The Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop

By A.J. Muhammad, Librarian III
May 21, 2019
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The genesis of this blog post stemmed from a conversation I had with Mary Yearwood, Director of the Collections and Information Services at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, about the incredible finds in the center's collections on the Black Theatre Movement—Mary even contributed suggestions for the blog title on the spot!

During the Black Theatre Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, New York City saw an emergence of theater companies led by artists of African descent. Born of a similar spirit, these companies—including the National Black Theatre, New Heritage Theater, New Lafayette Theatre, New Federal Theater (chronicled in an NYPL blog post), and Negro Ensemble Company—sought to affirm and amplify black culture through the performing arts, and illuminate the black experience on stage.

One of these influential groups, The Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop (FSWW)—co-founded by theater artist Garland Lee Thompson in collaboration with actors Morgan Freeman and Billie Allen, and journalist/playwright Clayton Riley—was a laboratory for hundreds of playwrights of African descent. The FSWW provided services for playwrights including play-reading and critique series, and award-winning productions of works developed at FSWW. The Workshop also offered opportunities for black theater artists who worked behind the scenes, including a collective for theater technicians and an apprenticeship program called the Artistic Technical Assistance Collective, a pipeline back into FSWW-staged presentations and productions. FSWW also featured the Larry Neal Memorial Writers Seminar Series, a playwriting seminar series led by veteran African American dramatists including Ed Bullins, Adrienne Kennedy, and Charles Fuller

The Frank Silvera Writers Workshop Records, 1973-1992, housed at the Schomburg Center, contains materials in various formats including the company’s administrative records and the manuscripts of more than 1,000 plays. Included are early works by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatists Lynn Nottage (Sweat, Ruined, and Intimate Apparel) and Charles Fuller (A Soldier's Play and Zooman and the Sign), located in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.

Photographs of FSWW productions and other events—some by photographer Bert Andrews, who documented the Black Theatre Movement with his camera—are preserved in the Photographs and Prints Division; and FSWW audio-visual materials are kept in the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division.

Thanks to newspaper databases, the Schomburg Center's clipping file collection, the arts publication Black Masks, and archival materials, we can examine the impact of this company and the artist for whom it was named. Thompson, the driving force behind FSWW for decades, is also spotlighted, as are the artists whose paths crossed at FSWW during their formative years, including the playwright OyamO, and actors Angela Bassett and the late Reg E. Cathey.   

Frank Silvera

Frank Silvera Portrait Collection, NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division 

Frank Silvera was a performing artist and activist born in Jamaica in the early 20th century. As a youth, he migrated to the U.S., where he lived and was educated in the New England area. During the Great Depression, Silvera cut his teeth acting on stages throughout New England (including a stint with the Boston division of the WPA Federal Theater Project) prior to arriving New York City.

He appeared on Broadway in the 1940s as a replacement in the production of the hit play Anna Lucasta, and toured London with the show. The play, known for being one of the longest-running plays with an all-black cast on Broadway, was originally produced in Harlem by the American Negro Theatre during the company’s residency at the 135th Street Library—future home of the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture.

Because of Silvera's looks, he was non-traditionally cast in roles where he played Latino, European, and Middle Eastern characters. Silvera performed roles of varying ethnicities in Broadway productions of A Hatful of RainCamino Real, Mademoiselle Colombeand others. One of his more memorable performances was playing the lead role in a Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear, directed by Joseph Papp. It's a role Silvera would return to in regional productions.

Frank Silvera and Isabelle Cooley in the play, Anna Lucasta. Frank Silvera Portrait Collection, NYPL Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division. Photographer unknown

Vivian Blain, Steve McQueen, and Frank Silvera in A Hatful of Rain, photograph by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: psnypl_the_4239

Silvera was also non-traditionally cast in dozens of movies including Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire and The Killing, Elia Kazan’s Viva ZapataThe Fighter, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, and Mutiny on the Bounty. He also appeared in the 1968 film Uptight, co-written by Jules Dassin along with Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield. (The latter two artists also performed in the film, set during the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; both Dee and Mayfield’s personal papers are housed in the Schomburg’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.) Silvera also guest-starred in classic TV series, including The Twilight ZoneRawhideGunsmokeThe Untouchables, andThe High Chapparal.

In the early 1960s, spurred on by the Civil Rights Movement to combine his interests in promoting racial equality and the arts, Silvera opened his own conservatory in Los Angeles called the American Theatre of Being in collaboration with Vantile Whitfield. There, he held acting workshops for a racially integrated group of students and formed a theater company.

Theatre of Being ad, Variety, April 8, 1964, pg 83

Silvera mentored black actors and assisted them with gaining membership into performer unions. Author Tommie Stewart wrote in The Acting Theories and Techniques of Frank Silvera and His Theatre of Being  that Silvera wanted his theater to be a platform to erase racism from the American stage and society. In addition to teaching students the craft of acting, the American Theatre of Being also produced plays including James Baldwin’s first play, The Amen Corner. Directed by and co-starring Silvera, the production also starred Bea Richards and Isabel Sanford, and debuted on Broadway in 1965. As a playwright, Silvera adapted Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths into Unto the Least: A Drama of Negro Life, In Three Acts.

Outspoken and passionate about the lack of opportunities for black actors beyond stereotypical roles portrayed in the media, Silvera took out ads in trade publications on behalf of the Theatre of Being to criticize the entertainment industry, and draw attention to prejudice and discrimination faced by black performers. Silvera, who influenced a generation of artists including Thompson, died tragically in an accident in 1970, at the age of 56.

Garland Lee Thompson

Rita Marquez, Amber Kain, and Garland Lee Thompson at the 1981 AUDELCO Awards.

NYPL Schomburg Center Photographs and Prints Division, photograph by Ben Cotton

Garland Lee Thompson, who was of African American and Native American descent, was born in 1938 and had roots in Oklahoma and Portland, Oregon. Thompson got his show business start on screen as a ceremonial dancer in the 1958 film adaptation of the musical South Pacific. While performing in productions in Los Angeles during the 1960s, Thompson studied acting at various conservatories, and under the tutelage of Frank Silvera at Silvera’s Theatre of Being. As a young actor, Thompson appeared in TV series including episodes of the original Star Trek series.
Thompson branched out into playwriting and directing, and worked behind the scenes as the resident stage manager for L.A.’s Inner City Cultural Center. By the early 1970s, he served as the stage manager and assistant director of the Broadway and touring productions of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play No Place to Be Somebody by Charles Gordone. The Negro Ensemble Company, which became a haven for black theater makers for decades, employed Thompson as production stage manager for their Broadway staging of the Tony award-winning The River Niger by Joseph A. Walker. Thompson also stage-managed for the New Federal Theatre.

Drawing inspiration from the work done by Silvera to bolster black artists, and a desire to create a much-needed space for black playwrights to incubate new works, Thompson joined forces with Morgan Freeman and others to establish Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop as a living tribute to Silvera in 1973. According to a 1993 profile on Thompson in the publication Black Masks, Thompson booked the Martinique Hotel in midtown Manhattan for a successful "four week 'book in hand' play reading series." 

Thompson said, "The mission was to give known and unknown writers a regular reading and a critique. Our focus was… not on a specific script but on a body of work by a specific writer…" Ntozake Shange, Richard Wesley, Charles Fuller, and Charles Gordon—better known as OyamO—are just a handful of dramatists who developed plays at FSWW, which relocated to Harlem by 1975, where it would be based over the following decades.

Ad for Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop production of Tut-Ankh-Amen, The Boy-King. Amsterdam News, June 12, 1982, pg 97

At the height of the FSWW’s output from the mid-1970s through the early 2000s, the Workshop offered various play developmental programs, and presented both workshop and fully staged productions. Some of their most popular shows included Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues by Ed Shockley, and Rudy Gray’s Medea and the DollThompson’s own works, which he called "Black Astral Theatre" ("super real black astral plays dealing with one of the seven levels of higher consciouness") included Sisyphus and the Blue-Eye Cyclops , an Illusory Mind Play (starring Morgan Freeman and Zaida Coles), Papa Bee on the D Train  and Tut-Ankh-Amen: The Boy King, were all produced by FSWW.

The FSWW relied on a several funding sources for its programs and operating budget and, as funding declined over the years, scaled back on its programming and staff, remaining in operation on limited resources and a can-do spirit. The FSWW relocated to different venues in Harlem, continuing to present readings of plays in the early stages of development, before Thompson, its guiding force, died in 2014 at age 76.

OyamO

Playwright OyamO was born Charles Gordon, later changing his name to avoid confusion with a writer with a similar name, Charles Gordone. OyamO is one of the many playwrights whose material was developed and ultimately produced by the FSWW.

OyamO hailed from Ohio and came to prominence as a dramatist during the Black Arts Movement. His writings have been widely published in Hillbilly Liberation: A Grossly Understated Prayer of Theatrical Spectacles, Social Positions and Poetry , a compilation of OyamO’s early works; The New Lafayette Theatre Presents: Plays With Aesthetic Comments by 6 Black Playwrights; and Black Drama Anthology. Manuscripts of OyamO’s plays can be found in the FSWW and Negro Ensemble Company play collections in the Schomburg’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.

Carla Brothers and Lee Roy Giles in "Fried Chicken and Invisibility". NYPL Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, photograph by Bert Andrews

A recorded performance of OyamO's play, I Am A Manset against the backdrop of the 1968 sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, can be seen at the NYPL Library for the Performing Arts. It was one of his last major productions in New York City. OyamO also taught at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Emory University, The College of New Rochelle, and the University of Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop.

In the 1980s, the FSWW presented OyamO’s one-act Fried Chicken and Invisibility. In this timely play set in the 1970s, two black men, William and Winston, have a boisterous and wide-ranging conversation aboard a Mystic, Connecticut-bound train, on which both men are headed to a writers conference.
In the play, William proposes a provocative solution to becoming a literary success as a black artist in a racist society: practice becoming invisible by performing what he perceives to be the dominant society’s expectation of who or what a black man is, rather than allow society to view his full humanity.
The play culminates in a chilling incident between the police and both William and Winston, leading to a violent alteraction that could've been ripped from today’s headlines.

Angela Bassett and Reg E. Cathey

Angela Bassett and Reg E. Cathey in "Fried Chicken and Invisibility", NYPL Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture Photographs and Prints Division, photograph by Bert Andrews

Carla Brothers, Lee Roy Giles, Reg E. Cathey, and Angela Bassett starred in the production of Fried Chicken and Invisibility, directed by Michael Knight. After the play, Bassett, a Yale School of Drama alum, starred in an Off-Broadway revival of J.E. Franklin’s play Black Girl, among other works, before making her Broadway debut in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black BottomA few years later, Bassett would appear in another Wilson production in which she originated the role of Martha Pentecost in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
In the 1990s, Bassett took the film world by storm starring as Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. The actor has made a career of portraying other iconic women from the African diaspora on screen including Betty Shabazz in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Rosa Parks in The Rosa Parks Story (which Bassett also produced), Coretta Scott King in Betty and Coretta, Katherine Jackson, matriarch of the Jackson family, in The Jacksons: An American Dream, and Voletta Wallace in Notorious.  She has also appeared in the 2018 megahit Black PantherWaiting to ExhaleHow Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Strange Days. On TV, Bassett has guest-starred in several seasons of the anthology program American Horror Story and is a regular on the series 911.

Angela Bassett in "Fried Chicken and Invisibility", NYPL Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture Photographs and Prints Division. Photograph by Bert Andrews

Reg E. Cathey and  Phillip Goodwin in "Hamlet". Photograph by Martha Swope, NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: Swope_626947

The late Reg E. Cathey was known for his distinct speaking voice and roles in films and TV series including House of CardsLuke CageThe Wire, and Oz . Cathey also performed on both regional and New York City stages, appearing in productions at The Public Theater and their Shakespeare in the Park venue, The Delacorte Theater.
Cathey portrayed characters in both contemporary and classical works including Blue DoorWhite ChocolateTalk, Love’s Labor's LostTimon of AthensHamletMacbeth, and The Taming of the Shrew.  Gen Xers may also be familiar with Cathey from the 1980s PBS math-themed children’s television program, Square One TV.

Over the past four decades, numerous other black theater artists collaborated with peers while developing their craft at the FSWW, which is currently in residence at Brooklyn’s Billie Holiday Theater. The workshop is now under the leadership of Thompson’s son, Garland Lee Thompson Jr., a former poet laureate and theater artist who is carrying his father’s legacy forth by running the FSWW. For more infomation about their current programs, visit the FSWW website.

The number of plays and dramatists that received support from organizations like FSWW and its peer companies during the Black Theater Movement is staggering! Fortunately, theater scholars and theater makers can rediscover plays like Fried Chicken and Invisibility and many others, which are archived at the Schomburg Center, as they are a testament to the intellectual and artistic expressions of black dramatists from the later part of the 20th century.
While names like Frank Silvera and Garland Lee Thompson may not be familiar to some, they provided black artists with a community, resources and, most important, visibility in an industry that too often rendered them invisible.