Carroll, Vinnette 1922–
Vinnette Carroll 1922–
Theatrical director, playwright
Vinnette Carroll encouraged the careers of many black performers through the UrbanArts Theatre, which she established in New York in 1967. Carroll has written or co-written several plays and musicals that blend traditional theatrical forms with African-American expressive culture in powerful and innovative ways; the musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, in particular, has rarely been absent from American stages since its premiere in 1976. Prior to her careers as author, director, and administrator, Carroll paved the way for other African-American actors with a top-level acting career of her own.
Carroll was born in New York on March 11,1922. Her father was a dentist, and her mother was a teacher who also headed the local dental auxiliary society. She spent much of her childhood in Jamaica, but returned to New York and enrolled in Long Island University, graduating in 1944. Her parents, mindful of the realities of a still largely segregated America, discouraged her interest in theater and hoped that she would become a doctor. Repelled by the sight of blood, Carroll compromised and went to graduate school in clinical psychology at New York University and Columbia University.
She found a job as a psychologist in the New York City school system but continued to harbor a desire to act. Living in New York, she was well situated to study acting with some of the top teachers and directors of the day; she took night courses at the New School for Social Research and took lessons from Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, among others. She made her professional debut in 1948 at a summer theater in Falmouth, Massachusetts, appearing in George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. But Carroll experienced racial discrimination in various forms. She was sometimes barred from entering theaters in which she was slated to perform, and worst of all, she found that her selection of roles was restricted.
Carroll therefore took the bold step of creating a one-woman show that included monologues from classical drama, poetry by black and white authors, and more. Carroll found a warmer reception when she took her show on tour to the Caribbean and to England in the late 1950s than she did at home. In 1953 Carroll became a drama instructor at New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, later immortalized in the movie musical Fame. She remained there until 1964.
Born March 11, 1922, in New York, NY; daughter of Edgar E. Carroll, a dentist, and Florence Morris Carroll, a teacher; children: one adopted son, Clinton Derricks-Carroll. Education: Long Island University, B.A., 1944; New York University, M.A. in psychology, 1946; Columbia University, completed coursework for Ph.D. in psychology; studied acting privately with Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and others.
Career: Playwright, actress, theater director, theater company administrator. Stage actress, 1948-; toured internationally with one-woman show, 1950s; High School for the Performing Arts, New York, faculty member, 1953-64; television debut, Black Nativity, 1962; several film credits, late 1960s; lnner City Repertory Company, Los Angeles, associate director; Urban Arts Corps, New York, founder 1967-; concept and direction for successful stage musicals including Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, 1970 and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, 1975; wrote and adapted other stage presentations; Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company, Fort Lauderdale, FL, founder 1985-.
Selected Awards: Obie award, 1961; Emmy award for television appearance in Beyond the Blues, 1964; three Tony award nominations; Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, 1970; inducted into Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1979.
Addresses: Office —Vinnette Carroll Repertory Theater, P.O. Box 030473, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33303.
Carroll’s work in the 1960s grew naturally along several lines out of her experiences as an actress. Her acting career continued with television and film appearances; she won an Emmy award for the television play Beyond the Blues in 1964. She began to direct plays herself, hoping to provide opportunities for other minority performers. And, having already incorporated materials by other writers in the process of shaping her one-woman presentation, Carroll began to create full-scale adaptations of non-theatrical works. Trumpets of the Lord, produced at the Astor Place theatre in 1963, was a dramatic version of a group of poetic sermons from James Weldon Johnson’s book God’s Trombone, interspersed with gospel music. But Never Jam Today was a playful African-American version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
The latter production premiered in 1969 under the auspices of Carroll’s Urban Arts Corps, a pioneering black-oriented company that Carroll had established in 1967 and that inspired the creation of similar companies in other American cities. Although she believed that black theater was underappreciated as an art form and that white critics often failed to appreciate its unique features, Carroll’s productions often featured casts of various backgrounds. “We feel the need for input from other peoples and from other groups,” Carroll explained in an interview in Voices of the Black Theatre. “If we can all get to be part of a more universal experience, we will get to see our similarities more than we see our differences.”
Carroll hoped to encourage the creation of original plays by African-American writers, but few had begun to follow the path she had laid down. Her solution was to expand her own creative activities. Carroll sketched ideas for several shows that further developed the mix of drama and gospel music that she had undertaken in Trumpets of the Lord; these ideas were then realized by Carroll and her collaborator, the composer and lyricist Micki Grant. Carroll directed the resulting productions, the first of which was 1970’s Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. That show won the annual Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award.
The best-known Carroll/Grant collaboration came in 1975 with Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, a gospel musical drawn on the biblical Book of Matthew and itself taking the form of a church service. The show premiered in Spoleto, Italy and was greeted by rave reviews from the start. When the show moved to New York and to Broadway, Carroll became the first black woman to direct a Broadway musical. Its planned six-month tour of other cities ended up closer to a year and a half in length as theaters sold out in city after city. Often revived since its creation, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God proved a memorable vehicle in 1998 for the return to live performance of R&B vocalist Teddy Pendergrass, sidelined since a 1982 automobile crash. “It’s as if he’d been preparing for that all the time, like a volcano laying dormant and building strength,” Carroll told the Washington Post.
In 1985, Carroll moved to Florida and established a new company of her own, the Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company, in Fort Lauderdale. Appropriately enough for the woman who had done so much to incorporate a gospel sensibility into musical theater, the company was able to move in to a disused church and renovate it as a theater. She remained active as producer and artistic director until ill health sidelined her in 2001, but by that time the debt younger African American performers owed Vinnette Carroll had become clear to all.
Trumpets of the Lord (adaptation of poetry by James Weldon Johnson), 1963.
But Never Jam Today (adaptation of Alice in Wonderland), 1969.
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (with Micki Grant), 1970.
Croesus and the Witch (with Micki Grant), 1971.
Step Lively, Boy, 1973.
All the King’s Men (adaptation of novel by Robert Penn Warren), 1974.
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (with Micki Grant), 1975.
I’m Laughin’ But I Ain’t Tickled, 1976.
What You Gonna Name that Pretty Little Baby?, 1978.
When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate, 1979.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, volume 78, Gale, 1999.
Cummings, Marsue, ed., Theatre Profiles, Theatre Communications, 1977.
Mitchell, Lofton, Voices of the Black Theatre, James T, White, 1975.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale, 1996.
Valade, Roger M., Ill, ed., The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature, Gale, 1996.
Who’s Who in the Theatre, 17th ed., Gale, 1981.
Miami Herald, February 20, 2001, p. A4.
Washington Post, October 17, 1998, p. C1.
—James M. Manheim
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