Holder, Laurence 1939–
Laurence Holder 1939–
A mainstay of New York’s theatrical scene, Laurence Holder writes plays that are mostly based on historical figures in the African-American world. He has written about famous people and those little known, about writers, musicians, sports heroes, cultural leaders, and ordinary folk. Holder has also written plays about Africans, Europeans, and a Caribbean ex-slave named Bussa who helped bring about the abolition of slavery in the British empire. A unique feature of Holder’s output is that he has often returned to the same figure more than once, as if trying repeatedly to embody the spirit of a cultural ancestor.
Long before director Spike Lee cast future Academy Award winner Denzel Washington as Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X. Washington had played the same role in one of Holder’s plays, When the Chickens Came Home to Roost. Phylicia Ayers-Allen, who played Claire Huxtable on television’s The Cosby Show was another prominent African-American performer who appeared in a Holder play early in her career. With Holder branching out into role of director in recent years, it remained to be seen what new generation of performers might benefit from his influence.
Laurence Holder was born in Brooklyn on February 26, 1939; his parents were from Barbados, and believed education was important in terms of both money and enjoyment of life. A lifelong New Yorker, Holder received two degrees from the City College of New York (CCNY)—the first in geology and the second, a Master’s in creative writing in the mid-1970s. By that time, Holder had already been writing plays for several years. His first play, Open, was written in 1969; it was set in a sanatorium and featured a minister, a teacher, and a playwright, each of unconventional ilk. Another early work, The Journey, depicted a political revolution carried out by middle-class black Americans.
Holder began to reach a wider audience with a television series he created while at CCNY. Watch Your Mouth ran on New York’s public television outlet WNET and on the NBC television network in 1974 and 1975. His first major stage production was mounted by New York’s famed La Mama theater company in 1978; it was called Juba and depicted a dancer, known by the stage name of Juba, who was active in New York’s Five Points saloon district in the 1840s and, though little known today, was really one of America’s first African-American stars.
A song-and-dance musical production in the classic vein, Juba marked the first in a long series of works in which Holder evoked some aspect of the African-American musical world, using music in a wide variety of ways. Equally significant, it established Holder as a historical dramatist. Holder’s mother Goldie, a writer herself, encouraged him to continue in this vein, and Holder responded with a pair of historical one-act plays, Zora and When the Chickens Came Home to Roost. By then Holder had settled on the idea of pursuing historical themes and was working toward ways of structuring and flavoring each play so as to better reflect the experiences and aspirations of its subject.
When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, which gave the young Denzel Washington early exposure,
Born in New York on February 26, 1939; son of Barbadian immigrants; married Andrea; three children. Education: Attended City College of New York; degree in geology; Master’s degree in creative writing, 1975.
Career: Began writing plays, late 1960s; created television series, Watch Your Mouth, that ran on New York station WNET and on NBC television, 1974-75; historical musical Juba presented by La Mama company, 1978; When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, 1982; Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography, one of five plays dealing with Hurston, 1998; M: The Mandela Saga, 1995; Monk, 2000; has taught at New York University, South Mountain Community College, Mercy College, The College of New Rochelle, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Awards: Received three Audelco (Audience Development Committee) awards.
Addresses: Home —626 Riverside Dr., #101, New York, NY 10031.
depicted the break between the aging Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and his protégé Malcolm X; the New York Times hailed the play, with its perhaps unexpected element of humor, as bringing these two legendary personalities “to utterly convincing life.” Zora, which starred Ayers-Allen as the Harlem Renaissance novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, was just one in a series of plays Holder has devoted to that pioneering figure. Holder had been introduced to Hurston’s work in 1973, when a friend lent him a copy of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. “The book overwhelmed me,” Holder was quoted as saying in the Times. “I sat right down and wrote a screenplay, but I couldn’t get the rights.” To date, Holder has written no fewer than five separate but related dramatic treatments of Hurston’s life and career; the most extensive of them, Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography, was staged at New York’s American Place Theatre in 1990.
When the Chickens Came Home to Roost earned Holder the first of several awards and nominations he received from Audelco (the Audience Development Committee, an African-American dramatic arts organization), and since then most theatrical seasons have seen one or more of Holder’s plays being presented on New York stages. Many of them were one-character showpieces; Monk (2000) received productions in New York and elsewhere with pianist Rome Neal in the title role. Monk, the second of two plays Holder has written about Thelonious Monk, was a dramatic monologue that provided a political context for the musical innovations of Monk and his compatriots. The first play, Monk ‘n Bud depicted the jazzman’s relationship with fellow bebop musician Bud Powell.
Holder, then, addressed historical subjects not in a mode of hero worship but with fresh interpretations. His play M: The Mandela Saga, (1995) for example, confounds traditional expectations by focusing on the story of the South African leader’s wife, Winnie, with whom Nelson Mandela clashed in later life; their disagreements, both personal and political as shown in Holder’s work, led to their divorce. Some of Holder’s plays delved into lesser-known corners of black history; Bussa, set partly in Holder’s parents’ homeland of Barbados in the 18th century, depicts an African slave once owned by Thomas Jefferson who led a rebellion that contributed to the demise of slavery in Britain’s colonies. Not all of Holder’s plays were on historical subjects; Ruby and Pearl: A Class Act (1996) was a realistic tale of a pair of aging striptease dancers.
The author of over 30 plays, Holder has written on subjects as diverse as socialist presidential candidate Lenora Fulani (F: The Fringe Candidate) and the relationship between French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir and Polish-American writer Nelson Algren (Nelson ’n Simone: Out of the Senses). He has written experimental dramas, seven novels, and several unpublished collections of poetry. Some of his manuscripts are held by the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library.
Married to an actress and the father of three children, Holder has taught in the Dramatic Writing Program of New York University, in the English Department of South Mountain College, and at various other institutions; he holds an ongoing appointment to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Although his music-themed plays have featured a wide variety of jazz figures. The theater of the 21st century, then, would be enriched by more plays from the prolific pen of Laurence Holder.
Bird (depicts Charlie Parker).
Bussa (treats a Barbadian 18th-century slave rebellion).
F: The Fringe Candidate (depicts leftist presidential candidate Lenora Fulani).
Fagen (treats a buffalo soldier turned anti-American Philippine insurrectionist).
Hot Fingers (depicts Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton).
Hot Snow (depicts trumpeter and dancer Valaida Snow).
Juba, musical, 1978.
M: The Mandela Saga, 1995.
Monk, 2000 (depicts Thelonious Monk).
Monk ’n Bud (Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell).
Red Channels (treats the Red Scare and its impact on African-American artists).
Ruby and Pearl: A Class Act.
Swee’ Pea and the Duke (features Duke Ellington and Lena Home).
They Were All Gardenias (depicts Billie Holiday and other jazz musicians).
Zora and Langston (depicts Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes).
Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography, 1990.
Arata, Esther Spring, and Nicholas John Rotoli, Black American Playwrights, 1800 to the Present: A Bibliography, Scarecrow Press, 1976.
Hatch, James V., Black Playwrights, 1823-1977: An Annotated Bibliography of Plays, Bowker, 1977.
Back Stage, February 9, 1990, p. 48; April 7, 1995, p. 56.
Hartford Courant, November 5, 2000, p. B7.
New York Amsterdam News, August 11, 1999, p. 29.
New York Times, July 15, 1981, p. C21; November 17, 1981, p. C9; January 17, 1982, section 1, p. 57; April 20, 1982, p. C12; February 4, 1990, section 2, p. 7; November 26, 1993, p. C25; November 3, 1998, p. E6; February 7, 2000, p. E5.
Newsday, October 14, 1995, p. B5; February 18, 1997, p. B2.
Village Voice, January 16, 1996, p. 63; February 22, 2000, p. 70.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography, April, 2C02.
—James M. Manheim
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