Elder, Lonne III 1931–1996
Lonne Elder III 1931–1996
Screenwriter and playwright
Lonne Elder III was among the important writers who came to prominence during the surge of creative activity that accompanied the social and political gains of African Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. Elder’s play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men was widely performed and often revived in the decades after its 1969 premiere, and his screenplay for the 1972 film Sounder won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. Elder was known as a writer who captured the strength of African-American family bonds, even in the face of the destructive effects wrought by the historical oppression of blacks in the United States.
Born in Americus, Georgia, on December 26, 1931, Elder moved with his family to Jersey City, New Jersey. His mother encouraged him to read, and he began to express himself in writing while he was still a small child. In an interview with Liz Gant in Black World, Elder recalled, “I don’t think I even knew what a writer was. I just liked the idea of writing to myself; it was a way of expressing feelings that I didn’t know how to express in other ways, like talking.” By the time Elder was 12 years old, both his parents had died, and his aunt and uncle continued his upbringing, along with that of his four siblings.
His uncle was a numbers runner, and Elder followed him on his rounds, collecting betting slips. Elder completed his formal education and attended New Jersey State Teachers’ College in Trenton in 1949, but dropped out before the end of his freshman year. He then moved to New York’s Harlem neighborhood, took classes at the New School for Social Research, and became involved in the growing civil rights movement. In 1952 Elder was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served for two years.
After he returned to Harlem, Elder became more and more involved with New York’s literary scene. He joined the Harlem Writers Guild and received encouragement from poets Langston Hughes and Robert Hayden, as well as other senior figures of black literature. To pay the bills, Elder worked variously as a waiter, after-hours poker dealer, dock worker, and phone clerk. He became interested in writing plays partly as a result of making several appearances as a stage actor, including a role in the original Broadway
At a Glance…
Born on December 26, 1931, in Americus, GA; died on June 11, 1996, in Woodland Hills, CA; son of Lonne Jr. and Quincy Elder; married Betty Gross, 1963 (divorced 1967); married Judith Ann Johnson (an actress), February 14, 1969; children: (first marriage) David DuBois, (second marriage) Christian and Loni. Education: Attended Yale University School of Drama, 1965-67. Religion: Episcopalian. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1952-54.
Career: Worked as political activist, phone clerk, waiter, poker dealer, and actor, 1950s; appeared in A Raisin in the Sun, 1959; began writing plays, early 1960s; Ceremonies in Dark Old Men given reading, 1965, produced 1969; Negro Ensemble Company, New York, director of playwrights’ division, 1967-69; screenwriter in Hollywood, 1970s-1980s; wrote screenplay for Sounder, 1972; adapted story by Richard Pryor for film Bustin’ Loose, 1981.
production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Sharing an apartment for a time with playwright Douglas Turner Ward also helped inspire Elder to become a playwright. By 1961 Elder had already written a play titled A Hysterical Turtle in a Rabbit Race which, although it remained unproduced, was an early expression of Elder’s chosen theme of the black family in a hostile America. Elder married Betty Gross in 1963 and the couple had a son, but they were divorced in 1967. He continued to scrape together a living by combining acting with odd jobs, and he appeared in a production of Ward’s play Day of Absence in 1965. Elder then began work on a new play of his own, and in July of that year Ceremonies of Dark Old Men was given a reading at Wagner College on New York’s Staten Island.
It would be several years before Ceremonies of Dark Old Men was performed in a full-scale production, but Elder was becoming more and more involved in the growing world of what was then often called black theater. The reading of the play propelled him to a fellowship in screenwriting at the Yale University School of Drama in 1966 and 1967, and won him several other financial awards. His one-act play Charades on East Fourth Street, which depicted a clash between community members and police, was performed at the Expo ’67 World’s Fair in Montreal, Canada. Elder served as director of the new Negro Ensemble Company’s playwrights’ division from 1967 until 1969, and when that company launched its first season at New York’s St. Mark’s Playhouse in 1969, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men was selected for production.
For many observers, the play marked the high point of Elder’s career. It garnered strongly positive reviews, was the runner-up for the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in drama, and won several other drama awards. The play deals with a 1950s Harlem family—Russell B. Parker, a barber (portrayed by Ward in the original production) who spends most of his time reminiscing about his glory days as a vaudeville dancer, his two unemployed sons, who live on the edge of the law, and his daughter, who resentfully supports the family. “I wrote to write, out of my guts and my heart,” Elder said in the New York Times. “I wanted to cause some kind of wonder in the minds of people. I don’t rant or rave about the terror of our racist society. It is never directly stated, it is just there.” By the time it was revived in 1985, the New York Times noted, “the play had become a contemporary classic.”
Performances of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men around the country kept Elder’s name before theatergoers and nurtured the early careers of actors such as Denzel Washington and Taurean Blacque (Hill Street Blues). Then, despite what he once called the “whore mentality” of the film and television industries, Elder moved west to pursue a career as a screenwriter. He had already begun writing for television as early as 1963, as part of the writing staff of CBS’s Camera Three.
Partly, Elder’s motivation was financial. He was newly married to actress Judyann Johnson, with whom he would raise two more children. Also, Elder explained to Black World that the cultural cauldron of New York in the civil-rights era was beginning to cause him stress: “I’m just not made of the stuff to walk around with daggers in my eyes and a clenched fist. I just can’t do it.” Elder wrote scripts for such series as McCloud, and adapted Ceremonies in Dark Old Men for television, an effort that brought him a Christopher award.
Elder also penned scripts for several major films, trying to steer clear of the violent so-called “blaxploitation” trend of the 1970s, or, as in the 1971 crime drama Melinda, to combine it with his own dramatic concerns. Elder’s most widely acclaimed screenplay was 1972’s Sounder, the story of an African-American family of southern sharecroppers during the Great Depression of the 1930s. That film garnered Elder an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. Elder also wrote screenplays for a television Sounder sequel, for the television film A Woman Called Moses (a biography of fugitive slave leader Harriet Tubman), and for Bustin’ Loose, Richard Pryor’s warmhearted comic tale of a bus driver who learns to love his busload of handicapped children.
In the 1980s Elder became disenchanted with Hollywood. Probably as a result of his efforts to change the way blacks were depicted in films and television, he was kept on the payroll by studio employers but denied the opportunity to work on important projects. “They decided they were going to teach me a lesson, and for two years I couldn’t get arrested,” he told the Washington Post. Elder contemplated moving back to the East Coast, thought about pursuing a teaching career, and wrote another play, Splendid Mummer, a one-actor show depicting the nineteenth-century African-American stage actor Ira Frederick Aldridge. The play was produced Off-Broadway in 1988. Elder had several other unrealized projects underway, including a screenplay about singer Ethel Waters. He continued to live with his family in Sherman Oaks, California. In 1990 he was called in to re-write the book version of King, a British musical about the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Lonne Elder died in Woodland Hills, California, on June 11, 1996, after a long illness.
A Hysterical Turtle in a Rabbit Race (stage play), 1961.
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (stage play), 1965, first produced in New York City, 1969.
Kissing Rattlesnakes Can Be Fun (one-act stage play), 1966.
Seven Comes Up, Seven Comes Down (one-act stage play), 1966.
Charades on East Fourth Street (one-act stage play), 1967.
Sounder (film screenplay), 1972.
Sounder, Part 2 (television screenplay), 1976.
A Woman Called Moses (television screenplay), 1978.
Bustin’ Loose (screen adaptation of story by Richard Pryor), 1981.
Splendid Mummer (monodrama), produced Off-Broadway, 1988.
Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 44: American Screenwriters, Second Series, Gale, 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Gale, 1981; Volume 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale, 1985.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 12, 1997, p. L3.
Black World, April 1973, p. 28.
Jet, July 8, 1996, p. 17.
New York Times, April 2, 1995, Connecticut Weekly ed., p. CN13; June 13, 1996, p. D24.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 27, 1990, p. G9.
Washington Post, February 11, 1985, p. B7.
Contemporary Authors Online, http://www.galenet.com.research.aadl.org/servlet/BioRC/
—James M. Manheim
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