Moses, Gilbert 1942–1995
Gilbert Moses 1942–1995
Theater, film, and television director
Gilbert Moses had about as varied a career as a director can have. From his early work in the 1960s as founder and artistic director of the pioneering Free Southern Theater company, Moses went on to direct in just about every dramatic context imaginable, including Broadway, Hollywood, television, and opera . He found time to play some rock and roll along the way as well. In his earlier, more provocative work, Moses called for a more thorough examination of the lives and identity of African Americans. Although the material he chose to direct became increasingly mainstream over the course of his career, his work never ceased to reflect that overriding artistic aim.
Moses was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, one of seven children. Although his elementary school had both black and white students, Moses was one of only a few black children to be placed in the school’s special classes for bright children. This isolation created in Moses a sense of inferiority. As he told Charlayne Hunter of the New York Times in a 1972 interview, he often felt “caught between two worlds” in school, where the subtle forms of exclusion made him feel like “a dim space in the room.”
At the age of nine, Moses began acting with Cleveland’s Karamu Theater, a celebrated community theater group. He found that the theater provided an escape from the insecurity he experienced in school, and Karamu became the one place in which he felt totally comfortable. Moses continued to act with Karamu through his high school years. After graduating from John Adams High School, he received a scholarship to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, where he studied French and German.
Moses spent one of his college years studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. While in France, Moses was inspired by the work of Jean Vilar and his Theatre National Populaire. Upon his return to the United States, Moses set out to create the kind of socially relevant theater that Vilar was doing. After graduating from Oberlin, Moses headed to the South in 1963 to take part in the civil rights movement. Settling in Jackson, Mississippi, Moses went to work as a journalist for the Jackson Free Press newspaper. Around the same time, he and a college
At a Glance…
Born Gilbert Moses III, August 20, 1942, in Cleveland, Ohio; died April 14, 1995, in New York; New York; son of Gilbert Moses Jr. and Bertha Mae (Jones) Moses; married Denise Nicholas (an actress); marriedWilma Butler, 1968; married Dee Dee Bridgewater (a singer); children: Tsia, China. Education: Oberlin College, B.A. 1964; attended The Sorbonne, France; attended New York University, 1966. Religion: Christian.
Jackson (Mississippi) Free Press, staff member, 1963-64, editor, 1964; New York Post, copy boy, 1964; Free Southern Theater, co-founder and artistic director, 1963-1967; director of several Broadway and off-Broadway plays, including Slaveship,1969; Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, 1971; Charlie Was Here and Now He’s Gone, 1971; The Duplex, 1972; The Taking of Miss Janie, 1975; and The Wiz; also directed many regional theatrical productions; director for Rigoletto, San Francisco Opera Company, 1972; film director, Willie Dynamite, 1973; and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, 1979; director of numerous television shows, including two episodes of Roots, 1977; The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened, 1977; A Fight for Jennie, 1987; episodes of Benson, Paper Chase, Law and Order, and several other series; New York University, acting instructor, 1971-72; California Institute of the Arts, visiting professor, 1982; Carnegie-Mellon University, drama professor, 1985.
Awards: Obie Awards, for Slaveship, 1970, and The Taking of Miss Janie, 1977; Drama Desk Award, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, 1973; New York Drama Critics Award and Outer Circle Award, for The Taking of Miss Janie, 1977; Emmy nomination, Humanitas Award, for Roots, 1977.
friend, John O’Neal, founded the Free Southern Theater, a racially-integrated troupe committed to performing cutting edge theater with a social conscience.
Through the mid-1960s, Moses toured the South with Free Southern Theater, performing in churches and other low-cost venues for an audience consisting largely of first-time theater-goers. In addition to addressing segregation and other important issues of the day, the company was interested in creating a black audience for theater in general. Though very successful by most measures, the FreeSouthern Theater was not without its problems. The combination of internal political squabbles, threats from Southern racists, arrests of company members, and, finally, the breakup of his own marriage to company member Denise Nicholas, was eventually too much for Moses to handle. He left the group in 1967.
During the period following his departure from the Free Southern Theater, Moses focused on playing music. A skilled rock guitarist, he played with such well-known musicians as Steve Miller and Michael Bloomfield, and was a member of a group called The Street Choir. By 1969, Moses was ready to return to theater. That year, he directed an off-Broadway production of Amiri Baraka’s Slaveship, for which he also wrote original music. Moses won an Obie award for his innovative direction of Slaveship, securing him a spot on the New York theatrical world’s map.
After his success with Slaveship, Moses spent the next couple of years directing regional theater, working in, among other places, Washington, D.C., Boston, and San Francisco. He returned to New York in 1971 to make his Broadway directorial debut with Ain ’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, a musical by Melvin Van Peebles, which ran on Broadway for two years. Moses won a Drama Desk award and was nominated for a Tony. His next big theatrical success came in 1975, when he directed The Taking of Miss Janie, by Ed Bullins. Moses won several awards, including an Obie, for his direction of Miss Janie, and the play was named best new American play of the season by the New York Drama Critics Circle.
Meanwhile, Moses was making his initial forays into film direction around this time. In 1973 he directed and composed the musical score for Willie Dynamite. His other feature film was The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979), starring basketball legend Julius Irving. Back on Broadway, Moses directed and helped create The Wiz, the all-black version of the classic The Wizard of Oz. The Wiz won a Tony Award for singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who by this time was also Moses’s wife.
Moses also launched his television directing career in the 1970s. In 1977 he directed two episodes of the groundbreaking Roots miniseries, for which he earned an Emmy Award nomination. Subsequent television directing credits have included episodes of Benson, Paper Chase, and Law and Order, as well as a number of made-for-TV movies and “After-School Specials. “For a period in the early 1980s, Moses went to work for evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, where he produced and/or directed both the popular 700 Club band the Christian soapoperaAnoth-er Life.
During the 1980s, Mosesreturned to teaching, a job he had first tried his hand at in the early 1970s at New York University. These educational forays included stints as visiting professor at Cornell University in 1981, California Institute of the Arts in 1982, and Carnegie-Mellon University in 1985. As the decade continued, he remained active both on the stage and on the TV studio. In 1987 Moses directed Dreaming Emmett, a play by acclaimed author Toni Morrison, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He also directed the television movie A Fight for Jenny for NBC that year. Moses continued to direct for television periodically until his 1995 death from multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer.
Although Moses took his work in many different directions over the course of his career, certain themes remained constant. In a 1987 Essence article, Don Armstrong pointed out that Moses’s directorial work “is best characterized not by its diversity of political, historical, and sociological interests, but by the innovative techniques he brings to a production.” He also never stopped presenting the black experience to American audiences, whether through the writing of Amiri Baraka in the 1960sorof Toni Morrison in the 1980s. Ina 1972 New York Times interview, Moses stated that “we as blacks are starved for images of ourselves all over this country.” On film, stage, and videotape, Moses helped to fill that void.
“Roots” (an absurdist one-act play, 1966), published in The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater, Dent, Schechner, and Moses, 1969.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 18,1995, p. 9B.
Essence, December 1974, p. 26; January 1987, p. 26.
New York Amsterdam News, April 22, 1995, p. 25.
New York Times, April 18,1995, p. B8.
New York Times Biographical Edition, March 1972, p. 594.
Washington Post, April 25, 1983, p. D7.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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