Paul Carter Harrison, whose ideas shaped Black theater, dies at 85
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Paul Carter Harrison, whose ideas shaped Black theater, dies at 85
Classical Theater of Harlem’s presentation of Melvin Van Peebles’s Tony-nominated “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” on opening night in New York on Oct. 1, 2004, a show Paul Carter Harrison helped conceive. Paul Carter Harrison, a playwright and scholar who in books, essays and award-winning plays provided a theoretical structure for Black performing arts, linking works by writers like August Wilson to a deeply rooted structure of African ritual and myth, died on Dec. 27, 2021 at a retirement home in Atlanta. He was 85. His daughter, Fonteyn Harrison, confirmed the death but said the cause had not been determined. Michael Nagle/The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Paul Carter Harrison, a playwright and scholar who in books, essays and award-winning plays provided a theoretical structure for the Black performing arts, linking works by writers such as August Wilson to a deeply rooted structure of African ritual and myth, died Dec. 27 in Atlanta. He was 85.

His daughter, Fonteyn, confirmed the death, at a retirement home, but she said the cause had not been determined.

In plays such as “The Great MacDaddy” and books such as “The Drama of the Nommo: Black Theatre in the African Continuum,” both in 1973, Harrison went beyond the social and political realism of many of his contemporaries, demonstrating how Black American culture is — and, he said, must be — rooted in African tradition, even as it mixed with white, Eurocentric traditions.

“The Great MacDaddy,” for example, is on the surface a paraphrased retelling of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” with the hero setting off across the country to find his father’s secret moonshine recipe. But it is also, and more fundamentally, informed by West African myths about a leader being tested — by demons, by departed elders — to prove himself worthy.

“He was always interested in what he called the deep structures of Black life,” Sandra Richards, a professor emeritus of theater at Northwestern University, said in an interview. “And for him, those deep structures have to do with ritual and myth.”

Although “The Great MacDaddy” won him an Obie Award, Harrison was equally well known, if not better known, for his theoretical work. Starting in the late 1960s, when he was a professor of theater at Howard University in Washington, he strove to give Black theater an intellectual construct akin to what already existed for Greek theater or Shakespeare.

His career was, he said in a 2002 interview, “a continuous preoccupation with trying to retrieve out of this particular experience we call the American experience some traces of our Africanness in the work that we do.”

He argued that those myths and rituals were then evoked through aspects of performance, like rhythm and body movement — whether onstage, in church or in everyday life.

“He talked about Black performance traditions such as Carnival, which are rooted in rhythm, drums and movement,” said Omiyemi (Artisia) Green, a professor of theater and Africana studies at the College of William & Mary. “You see these kind of elements moving in the Black church as well. All of these things, that movement working together with the language working together with the drums, these things conjure the presence of spirit.”

Harrison went on to identify and promote those writers and directors who he felt were already engaged in a similar project, among them Melvin Van Peebles, whose Tony-nominated musical “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” Harrison helped conceive, and especially Wilson, a close friend and intellectual compatriot, whose work he believed came closest to aligning contemporary Black arts with its African roots.

“More so that anyone else, Paul Carter Harrison was intimately familiar with what was in August Wilson’s toolbox,” Sandra Shannon, an emerita professor of English at Howard and president of the August Wilson Society, said in an interview.

Harrison wrote a series of anthologies highlighting the work of like-minded playwrights and scholars. And though never combative, he could be vocal in his criticism of Black playwrights and directors he felt were operating too close to the white idiom.

“African American art runs the risk of losing its uniqueness and soulfulness if it fails to relate the past to the present,” he wrote in “Kuntu Drama: Plays of the African Continuum” (1974).

The problem, he argued, was that the Black theater struggled within the confines of the larger, white-dominated culture industry, which tended to ignore authentic expressions of African cultural forms while pouring money on sanitized tellings of the African American experience.

To make room, he supported Black theater groups such as the New Federal Theater and the Negro Ensemble Company, and he mentored actors and scholars who he felt understood his vision, among them actress Phylicia Rashad, who studied under him at Howard, and Talvin Wilks, a professor of theater at the University of Minnesota.

“He was essential in building those relationships and those connections, and was always trying to affirm an understanding of the lineage and the role that any generation could play inside of that,” Wilks said. “He showed that we were all connected through these African diasporic traditions and connections, whether we understood that or not.”

Paul Carter Harrison was born March 1, 1936, in Manhattan. When he was 7, his father, Paul Randolph Harrison, died. His mother, Thelma Inez (Carter) Harrison, worked for the New York City government.

He fell in love with the theater early, taking in plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. But although he admired those white playwrights, he said, they left him cold. More compelling for him were the rhythms of gospel music, storefront chatter and Black political rhetoric, through all of which ran what he called a “mythopoetic” thread unspooled over centuries.

He enrolled in New York University, having already fallen in love with the jazz clubs around its Greenwich Village campus. But when he decided to pursue a career in psychology, he transferred to Indiana University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1957.

He returned to New York to get a doctorate in psychology at the New School for Social Research. He completed a master’s degree in 1962, but by then he had rediscovered his love of theater and took a year off to write.

He moved to Spain, then the Netherlands, where he fell in with a circle of writers and artists, including actress Ria Vroemen, whom he married in 1963. They separated in 1968 and later divorced.

Along with his daughter, he is survived by his second wife, Wanda Malone, and a grandson.

Harrison was prolific, writing plays, essays and movie scripts, and in 1968, Howard invited him to join its theater department. He arrived for his interview just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which set off unrest, including looting and burning, on the streets just outside the university’s gates.

Inside them, he found a student body already putting the heady ideas of Black thinkers such as Stokely Carmichael and Amiri Baraka into action. The Black Arts Movement was transforming wide swaths of literature and performance, and Harrison was eager to be a part.

Inspired, he began writing essays that tried to give an intellectual framework to what he was seeing onstage. Already well versed in European traditions, he explored African myths and rituals, identified their vitality in art forms such as jazz, and advocated for a new generation of artists to embed them within their own work.

He also shook up the Howard theater scene. The department, he said in a 2002 interview, had mostly put on plays by white writers. He insisted on replacing classical works with plays by Black writers, including himself — a position that soon brought him in conflict with the department chair.

Harrison quit in 1970 and planned to return to Europe. But he received an offer to teach at California State University, Sacramento, a job that would get him close to the vibrant Black arts scene in the Bay Area, and he accepted.

He later taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and at Columbia College Chicago, where he remained until he retired in 2002.

Harrison had become something of an intellectual father figure for a generation of Black writers, directors and performers, who flocked to hear him speak. Unlike them, however, he shunned the spotlight, preferring to be known through his work.

“I’ve never been an actor,” he said in a 1997 interview. “I’m principally a playwright. I like anonymity. I’m a good deal more reserved.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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