Hill, Errol 1921–
Errol Hill 1921–
Educator, actor, author, playwright
For decades, beginning as early as the 1940s, Errol Hill was the leading voice for the development of a national theater in the West Indies. A native of Trinidad, Hill became an accomplished actor, playwright, and scholar. His early work focused on creating a body of plays uniquely suited for audiences and actors in the West Indies. His later published work brought to light the many accomplishments and trials of black stage actors.
Hill was born on August 5, 1921, on the West Indian island of Trinidad to Thomas David and Lydia (Gibson) Hill. Hill had little relationship with his father, who went abroad on business when Hill was young and stayed away from the family until Hill was already grown. On the other hand, Hill was tremendously influenced by his mother, who sang in the Methodist choir and often played the leading role in the church’s staged religious dramas. With no professional theater on the island and amateur productions quite rare, Hill’s first introduction to drama and song was through his mother’s rendition of scripture and hymns.
Hill, who sought to imitate his mother’s eloquent speech and strong voice, first began practicing his delivery at the daily family prayer times held each morning at his mother’s bedside when he would be called on to read scripture passages aloud. He secretly practiced the passages so he could impress his family with his rendition. In his later years of elementary school, Hill first encountered Shakespeare and drama through a gifted teacher who also stirred Hill’s desire to bring the spoken word to life. During his high school days, Hill was an excellent student, a Boy Scout, and a top debater. He was well known on the island for his acting ability and his dramatic flair.
The first play in which Hill appeared was A Man in the Street, staged at the Methodist school hall in Port-of-Spain. Despite being ill with the flu, Hill managed to drag himself from his sick bed to play the leading role on opening night. Hill also began writing his own plays and helped form an amateur group that performed on the island. After graduating, he had the honor of becoming the first Trinidadian to be awarded a British Council scholarship in drama to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
At a Glance…
Born on August 5, 1921, in Trinidad, West Indies; son of Lydia and Thomas Hill; married Grace Hope, August 12, 1956; children: Da’aga, Claudia, Melina, Aaron. Education: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, graduate diploma, 1951; London University, diploma in drama, 1951; Yale College, BA, 1962; Yale School of Drama, MFA, 1962; Yale School of Drama, DFA, 1966. Military Service: US military engineer, Trinidad, 1941-43.
Career: British Broadcasting Corporation, London, announcer and actor, 1951-52; University of West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica, and Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, creative arts tutor, 1953-58, 1962-65; playwright, 1958-66; University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria, teaching fellow in drama, 1965-67; Richmond College of the City University of New York, associate professor of drama, 1967-68; Dartmouth College, professor, 1968-89; author, 1972–.
Awards: Hummingbird Gold Medal, government of Trinidad and Tobago, 1973; Barnard Hewitt Award, American Theatre Association, 1985; Bertram Joseph Award for Shakespeare studies, Queens College of the City University of New York, 1985; Guggenheim fellow, 1985-86; Fulbright fellow, 1988; Presidential Medal, Dartmouth College, 1991.
Address: Home —3 Haskins Rd., Hanover, NH 03755.
Hill, the only black student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, was required to be made up white before performances on stage with his white peers. A professional makeup artist instructed him on techniques to paint his face white and don a wig. Eventually one of the school’s directors, who recognized the degrading and laborious nature of Hill’s makeup requirements, staged Deep Are the Roots, an American play about racism in the South. Hill played the lead role of Brett Charles, and much to Hill’s delight, one of his classmates was made up blackface to play his mother.
Hill’s years at the academy were a mixture of wonder and disappointment. He was enthralled with the theater and saw hundreds of productions while in London. He was particularly fascinated with Shakespeare and studied the efforts of many great English actors, including Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. However, his enthusiasm was stymied by the racist attitudes that prevailed at the time. The reality of his situation struck him hard when, as a graduating student, he was invited to participated in a showcase of the school’s best actors, who performed in front of a group of London talent scouts. Going in with hopes for a leading role, Hill was cast as the household servant, the traditional stereotype that showcased none of Hill’s talents.
Refusing to be deterred, Hill began staging his own productions. Gathering West Indian students from London’s international community, Hill first produced Henri Christophe, with fellow Trinidadian Errol John in the lead. Before leaving the academy he also staged a well-received production of Sophocles’ Antigone. Following graduation in 1951, Hill remained in London for a year, during which time he worked as a radio broadcaster for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). He became a regular reader on the weekly BBC Caribbean program and appeared in numerous radio dramas.
In 1953 Hill left London to take a job as a creative arts tutor in the extramural drama department of the recently established University of the West Indies in Jamaica. During his stint in Jamaica, Hill became increasingly interested in writing and producing plays indigenous to the West Indies. His hopes of laying the groundwork for a West Indies national theater were subsequently waylaid by political developments that left little hope for sustaining a national arts movement. On August 12, 1956, Hill married Grace Hope, a teacher; they had four children: Da’aga, Claudia, Melina, and Aaron.
Hill took a sabbatical from teaching in 1958 to pursue his studies at the Yale Drama School and returned to the University of the West Indies in 1962. In 1965 he was sent to Nigeria as a teaching fellow at the University of Ibadan’s School of Drama. Leaving Nigeria two years later, Hill saw little hope of convincing his home university of creating a full-fledged drama department. Frustrated, he left the University of the West Indies for the United States.
With a recommendation from a professor at Yale, Hill secured a teaching position at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1967. As his first assignment he portrayed Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was the first time in his life that he had been allowed to played a Shakespeare part in its entirety. With growing confidence, in 1968 he took on the lead role of Shakespeare’s Othello and received positive reviews. Hill found a home at Dartmouth and remained on the school’s faculty until his retirement in 1989. Joining the faculty as an associate professor, he was named professor in 1968. In 1978 he became the John D. Willard Professor of Drama and Oratory. He headed the department from 1970 to 1973 and again from 1976 to 1979.
“I began writing plays when it became clear to me … that an indigenous West Indian theatre could not exist without a repertoire of West Indian plays,” Hill noted in Contemporary Dramatists. Written in 1948 Oily Portraits was first produced under its original title, Brittle and the City Fathers, in Trinidad. The play addressed political corruption in the West Indies. Square Peg, was written in 1949 but not produced until 1966, when it was staged by the University of the West Indies and published by the university’s Extramural Department. The one-act drama is about a young man who runs away from home. Subtitled “A Backyard Comedy-Drama in One Act,” The Ping Pong was written in 1950 and broadcast on BBC in the same year. A story of a West Indian steel band in the midst of trying to win a band contest, the play was first published and staged by the University of the West Indies in 1958. Hill penned Dilemma, a one-act production about the industrial pollution of the environment in 1953. It was produced and published by the University of West Indies in 1966.
Hill’s greatest success as a playwright came with his folk musical Man Better Man, written in 1954. The three-act production relays the story of a young man who resorts to voodoo, or folk magic, to win a stick-fighting contest with the intent of impressing the girl he wishes to marry. The comedy was well received by critics and audiences. It was produced by the Yale School of Drama in 1960 and 1962. In 1965 productions popped up in England and Trinidad, and in 1969 the Negro Ensemble Company staged 23 performances of Man Better Man at St. Marks Playhouse in New York.
In 1957 Hill wrote the one-act play Wey-Wey, with derived comedy from the circumstance and happenings revolving around an illegal lottery in the West Indies. Wey-Wey was produced in the West Indies in 1957 and published by the Extramural Department in 1958. In Strictly Matrimony, written in 1959, Hill evokes comedy from a happy couple involved in a common-law relationship who are tricked into marriage, which turns their lives into comical chaos. The one-act comedy was staged by Yale University in 1959 and published by the Extramural Department of the University of the West Indies in the same year. In 1965 Hill penned Dance Bongo, a fantasy one-act about the dead-wake ritual dance. Other plays written by Hill that remain unpublished include Dimanche Gras Carnival Show, and Whistling Charlie and the Monster.
From the 1970s through the remainder of his career, Hill set aside his role as playwright to become an esteemed scholar of West Indian theater. Along with serving as an editor or contributor to a number of publications, Hill wrote The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre, The Jamaican Stage 1655-1900, and A History of African American Theater. He also continually pushed for the wall to come down that barred black actors from meaningful stage roles. In 1984 he published Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespeare Actors. The highly acclaimed work traces the path of black actors painfully slow entrance onto the stage of Shakespearean productions. In his introduction Hill noted, “One cannot … ignore the fact that since theater holds a time-honored place in civilized life, the part that black Americans play in upholding the institution of theater reflects their status in the larger society. The history of blacks in America is one of upward striving to secure a place as full citizens entitled to equal rights in a free democracy. Until that status is assured, black achievement in any field bears a direct relationship to existing social and political conditions.” Hill, who retired from Dartmouth in 1989, continues to make his home in New Hampshire.
The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre, University of Texas Press, 1972.
Shakespeare in Sable, University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
The Jamaican Stage: 1655-1900, University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
(with Martin Banham and George Wordyard) The Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
(with James V. Hatch) A History of African American Theater, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
The Ping-Pong (one act), Extramural Department, University of the West Indies, 1958.
Man Better Man (three acts), In Three Plays from the Yale School of Drama, Dutton, 1964.
Dance Bongo (one act), Extramural Department, University of the West Indies, 1965.
Square Peg (one act), Extramural Department, University of the West Indies, 1966.
Dilemma (one act), Extramural Department, University of the West Indies, 1966.
Strictly Matrimony (one act), Extramural Department, University of the West Indies, 1966.
Wey-Wey (one act), Extramural Department, University of the West Indies, 1966.
Black American Writers: Past and Present, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1975.
Caribbean Writers, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, Inc., 1979.
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.
Hill, Errol, Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
Peterson, Bernard L., Jr., Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 15th ed. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.
Writers Directory, 14th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.
African Affairs, Winter 1996; April 1997.
African American Review, Winter 1996.
American Historical Review, June 1985.
Theatre Journal, May 1993.
“Errol Gaston Hill,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 17, 2003).
“Transcript of an Interview with Errol Hill,” Pan Caribbean, www.pancaribbean.com/banyan/errol.htm (July 17, 2003).
"Hill, Errol 1921–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hill-errol-1921
"Hill, Errol 1921–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hill-errol-1921
August 5, 1921
September 15, 2003
Errol Hill was the foremost scholar, historian, and advocate of theater in the Caribbean and African America. These roles were founded on his practical involvement in the theater as actor, director, playwright, and teacher in a career that spanned some six decades and contributed significantly to the growth and appreciation of this art in his native Caribbean.
Born in Trinidad, West Indies, Hill, along with actor Errol John and others, founded the island's first indigenous theater company, the Whitehall Players, in 1947. Graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1951, Hill was appointed Extra-Mural Tutor in Drama at the University of the West Indies, where he stimulated and facilitated much of the development of Caribbean theater across the region. Following this assignment, Hill taught at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, for two years before taking up appointments in the United States, where he would settle for the rest of his life. He retired after thirty-five years at Dartmouth College as John D. Willard Professor of Drama and Oratory, Emeritus.
Hill's work and contribution to theater internationally represent the very emergence of the West Indies as a region from colonialism to nationalism and political independence to cultural affirmation on the world stage.
The son of a Methodist minister, Hill benefited from a sound colonial education, which involved an early exposure to the performing arts, one of his schoolmasters being the Trinidad playwright DeWilton Rogers. Theater for Hill, as for the majority of practitioners of the day, meant British theater. In Hill's case, this influence was reinforced by his links with the British Council, where he worked as secretary and whose premises at Whitehall lent its name to the company he formed. But the West Indian masses had emerged in the literature of the region at least a decade before, and as Hill pointed out, "critics called for native plays" (1972, p. 29). Hill responded to this mandate with Ping Pong (1950), the first play on the steelband, Trinidad's indigenous musical orchestra, which had emerged in the late 1930s.
Through his appointment in 1953 to the University of the West Indies, itself a symbol and instrument of a nascent nationhood, Hill championed and propagated the idea of an indigenous theater that would crown a federated West Indies. He undertook the herculean task himself, teaching enthusiastically among the countries between British Honduras and British Guiana the skills such an enterprise demanded. The year the political Federation fell apart, Hill wrote Man Better Man (1960), a play reflecting the composition and traditions of Trinidadian folk. The play represented the newly independent state at the 1965 Commonwealth Festival in Britain. Other dramas in this period, Dance Bongo (1964) and Whistling Charlie and the Monster (1964), a political satire, continued to demonstrate the possibilities of an indigenous West Indian theater.
Hill's two-year appointment at the University of Ibadan in 1965 and thereafter in the United States allowed him to consolidate his theories and pursue further research into the history of the largely unrecorded theater of the African diaspora. He wrote extensively on the constituent arts of Trinidad Carnival, authenticating them theatrically and placing them on the agenda for further academic study. This he accomplished most authoritatively in his seminal thesis, The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre (1972).
In this and in his other papers on Caribbean theater, Hill's stand is clear and consistent. He argues that there is a role in the Caribbean for a purposeful and professional theater as an expression of national identity and social cohesion and that Caribbean society is the poorer for not yet possessing it. This theater, he contests, belongs to all people, not just a social elite, and the people regionally should have access to it. Moreover, Caribbean theater must be based on indigenous sources that the people of the region recognize as their own. In fact, the definition of theater in the African experience incorporates a multiplicity of forms quite unlike modern Western theater, and this multiplicity must be reflected on the national stage.
Professor Hill's scholarly, academic, and artistic achievements are recognized in the many prestigious awards he received in America, Europe, and the Caribbean.
Hill, Errol. "Emergence of a National Drama in the West Indies." CQ 18, no. 4 (1972): 9–40.
Hill, Errol. The Jamaica Stage, 1665–1990: Profile of a Colonial Theatre. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Hill, Errol. Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Hill, Errol. The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre. London: New Beacon, 1997.
Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
rawle gibbons (2005)
"Hill, Errol." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hill-errol
"Hill, Errol." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hill-errol