TO SIR WITH LOVE
February 20, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Today is Sidney Poitier’s 90th birthday. And while researching a few facts I, for one, had no idea that he had been knighted forty-three years ago by the British government — and not an honorary knighthood, either. This was in 1974 and it was only seven years prior that To Sir With Love, in which he starred, was the unexpected box office hit of 1967. That was the extraordinary year where Poitier starred in not one, but two of the Best Picture nominees (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night — which won the award), properly establishing his status as the undisputed biggest star in Hollywood.
With the Academy Awards coming up this weekend, and with more African-American actors nominated in the acting categories than in any other year of the awards, it would make sense to write about Poitier’s historical Best Actor win in 1965 for Lilies of the Field, and of its timing which came at the height of the Civil Rights movement. But since I write about the theatre, I would like to celebrate what Poitier meant to the theatre once upon a time.
Breaking through in films with his performance in 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle for director-writer Richard Brooks, Poitier was in a rarified position in 1959 when he was approached to star in a new play by a young female playwright, Lorraine Hansberry (only twenty-nine at the time). That year saw Poitier as the first black actor nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in The Defiant Ones. This made him not only a star, but one who everyone was watching closely. Every role he took not only defined him as an actor, but put him in the unenviable position of having to be an exemplar of his race (for the record, he is Bahamian-American, having been born in the Bahamas).
The play was A Raisin in the Sun, and once Poitier’s participation was secured, not only did it mean it would get produced, but it would be presented on Broadway (excepting for one role), with an all-black cast. Sure there was precedent for this, but in this particular case, with the world watching Sidney Poitier’s every move, the play was under undue pressure to perform well. If it closed out of town, it might have led to people to say Poitier wasn’t the same sort of draw at the higher price level of theatre tickets he was at the movies. Or that Broadway was no place to test young African-American writers, let alone a women. Lloyd Richards, the play’s first-time director, also happened to be African-American. It would be the first play by a black woman to open on Broadway, and the first Broadway play with a black director. It was in this pressure cooker that the work began to bring the show to New York.
It is common knowledge that the original production was a great success. Ms. Hansberry was anointed an important voice and it was only due to her tragic death from cancer at age thirty-four that we were not treated to more work from this gifted writer. But there were hardships in bringing the play to Broadway, well-chronicled in 2001's You Can’t Do That on Broadway!, written fifty-two years later by the show’s principal producer, Philip Rose. In it, he tells of how difficult it was raising the necessary funds and how arduous the out of town tryouts in Philadelphia, New Haven and Chicago were. But A Raisin in the Sun got to the promised land of Broadway, opening triumphantly on March 11, 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Besides Poitier, the play reads now as a future who’s who of many groundbreaking artists. Among its cast members, Louis Gossett would later become the first African-American actor to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in An Officer and a Gentleman; Diana Sands went on to Broadway stardom, culminating in her portrayal as Saint Joan in 1968 at Lincoln Center, before she, too (like Hansberry) died from cancer before the age of forty; and Ruby Dee, who gave us a lifetime of important roles on the stage and screen and who (alongside her husband, Ossie Davis — the actor that assumed the role of Walter Younger Jr. when Poitier left the original production) was at the forefront of the campaign for human rights in this country. Also in the cast was thirteen-year-old Glynn Turman, who has had a rich career and won an Emmy fifty years after his Broadway debut in A Raisin in the Sun for HBO’s In Treatment, and Claudia McNeil, who at the time of the play’s premiere was already a leading African-American actress in the theatre. Her understudy, Beah Richards, would later portray Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Quite a cast, wouldn’t you say?
In his memoir, Rose tells what an “improbability” his career as a theatre producer was by way of A Raisin in the Sun.” As a Jew from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he marvels how he posesssed the audacity to think he could mount such a problematic show without ever having produced anything in his life (he had been a record executive). But alongside David J. Cogan, an accountant, they made history together. According to his New York Times obituary, “Rose had known the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, since they had both worked in a summer camp in the Catskills, he as a singer on the entertainment staff, she in the dining room. She confessed to him that she had literary dreams.”
Beautiful, right? But the rejoinder from Rose puts it in proper perspective. According to his wife, his response to Hansberry was “I hope you do become a writer, because you’re a lousy waitress.”
In the book, Rose recounts the mystery behind what drove him to take on the play, musing on whether his days as a young man doing bill collecting in poor Washington, D.C. neighborhoods gave him insight into what was going on in the black community. “Why I was so open to becoming this person, I have no idea. I also don’t know why any of those people, given the circumstances under which they met me, cared enough to reach out, to enlighten me, and to point me in a new direction. What I do know is how grateful I am for what was done for me by a group of generous, remarkable people who happened to be black. And while I don’t know where or who they now are, I know that for anything important I may have done or will do with my life, I am trying to say ‘thank you’ to them.”
Due to Rose’s diligence, A Raisin in the Sun is now a classic of world theatre, recorded for posterity on film in 1961 (with nearly the entire original cast intact) and in two subsequent television versions and two major award winning Broadway revivals.
And to Sidney Poitier, who helped immeasurably by lending his towering presence to A Raisin in the Sun nearly sixty years ago, we one can only hope that he is having a healthy and happy day today. “Happy Birthday, Sir.”
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/