Saturday, February 13, 2016


   Beah Richards was an iconic and peripatetic performer who could almost always be assured of the role of mother or grandmother in many well known dramas. I had seen her in many TV shows and movies and wondered about her.  At one point, early in the civil rights period, a white neighbor of mine wrote a play that Beah Richards actually produced with her own money. It was a Black Cinderella - back in the early days of the movement and way ahead of its time dramatically and culturally speaking.  Who was this Beah Richards?  Her father was a preacher and always called Black people Black -- way ahead of his time.  "My mother didn't want to bring children into THIS world."
   Beah Richards achieved some notoriety in plays on Broadway and finally in television when roles opened up a bit to African Americans.  She invariably played women older than her age from the beginning, perhaps because of the limited roles for Black women.  She played the mother to Sydney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?", the mother to Robert Hooks in "Hurry Sundown", to James Earl Jones in "The Great White Hope", to Danny Glover in "And the Children Shall Weep" and to Eriq La Salle in the TV drama "ER".

   From 1967 on she was never short of TV roles, The Bill Cosby Show, Hill Street Blues, Murder She Wrote, the mini-series "Roots: The Next Generation" and many more.
   Richards was also a dancer, an orator, and a prolific writer of plays, poems, and novels - from the Obituary in The Guardian:  "Richards also enjoyed success as a writer with One Is a Crowd, and A Black Woman Speaks and Other Poems. Adapting these for the stage, she went on tour with a show called An Evening With Beah Richards. Further stage roles included James Baldwin's The Amen Corner and a Lincoln Centre revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, directed by Mike Nichols."
   A quote from the New York Times obituary seems appropriate - "Looking back to her childhood as the daughter of a minister, Ms. Richards said: ''I always relate the theater to the church. There is the sharpness of image, the poetry. And like the church, the theater must always be an exploration for truth.''

   Yet there is little hint in any of the accounts of her life about how incredibly involved and ahead of her time she was with Civil Rights and in fact, the situation of Africans and African Americans in the world.  I found a small hint of this when I was researching Eslanda Robeson - Beah Richards was part of an international group of African and African American women.  She was friends with W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson as well.
  This site gives much more information than any about the complexity of Beulah Richardson - it includes this drawing of her and the fact that she delivered a poem at a meeting in 1951 at the Women's Workshop at the American Peoples Peace Conference in Chicago, Illinois. She received a standing ovation from 500 people in attendance.
The opening lines of that poem: 
"It is right that I a woman
should speak of white womanhood.
my fathers
my brothers
my husbands
my sons
die for it: because of it.
and their blood
chilled in electric chairs,
stopped by hangman’s noose,
cooked by lynch mobs’ fire,
spilled by white supremacist mad desire to kill
give me that right "

This poem was written for a contest which she won -- here's a great summation of it by Sokari writing in 2011 - "As a young woman trying to be an actress and dancer in Hollywood in the 1950s and facing the proverbial slammed door, Beah decided to go to New York. She was penniless and hearing about a peace conference in Chicago with a prize for the poem which best expressed peace, she decided to enter her poem “A Black Woman Speaks……” Beah entered a poetry competition. I never heard of this poem yet it’s at least as powerful as Sojourner Truth’s’Aint I a Woman“. The poem speaks to the primordial memory of pre-Americas, slavery, rape, imprisonment, racism, humiliation, lynchings and centuries of dehumanization of Black peoples. The poem though it speaks to these vile memories and realities, is a poem of resistance. An act of survival and despite the terrible hardships of the journey from there to here, I, we remain standing our pride in tact."

   Beah Richards won an Emmy just days before her death in 2000.  Apparently she wished that her ashes be strewn over the confederate graveyard in Mississippi -- the last act of a true fighter for freedom!  Born in 1920, Richards was an incredibly rich person who shared her visions and knowledge and depth of understanding with others. Just read Lisa Gay Hamilton's description of working with her on "Roots" and when she met with her to tape the 70 hours of conversation for the movie she made.  You will be forever impressed at what an amazing person she was. She is deeply missed.

  Lisa Gay Hamilton's beautiful documentary "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks" won the Grand Jury prize at the AFI Film Festival.  It is taken from over 70 hours of conversations recorded by the actress Hamilton.
   "BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS, the directorial debut of actress LisaGay Hamilton, celebrates the life of legendary African American actress, poet and political activist Beah Richards, best known for her Oscar nominated role in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. While Richards' struggled to overcome racial stereotypes throughout her long career onstage and onscreen in Hollywood and New York, she also had an influential role in the fight for Civil Rights, working alongside the likes of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Louise Patterson."
   A last quote from Beah Richards - "There are a lot of movies out there that I would hate to be paid to do, some real demeaning, real woman-denigrating stuff. It is up to women to change their roles. They are going to have to write the stuff and do it. And they will." 
—Beah Richards

Obituary The Guardian - 
Short Bio -
New York Times obituary - 
Bio and more -
Interview YouTube -  Clip from "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks"
Bio from -   
Her poem in full - 
HBO shines a light on Beah Richards, a mentor to many - 

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