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Scott, Harold Russell, Jr.

Scott, Harold Russell, Jr.

1935-2006

Theater director

Harold Russell Scott Jr. belonged to a fresh generation of classically trained African-American stage actors who benefited from a wave of educational-institution integration in the years following World War II. Scott went on to an impressive second career as a theater director, becoming the first black ever to hold the post of artistic director at a major American regional theater. He also headed the directing program at Rutgers University for 20 years before his death in 2006. Scott was never as well known as he should have been, noted his longtime colleague, the actor Avery Brooks, in a posthumous tribute for American Theatre, but Scott "had great heart, great courage." Brooks repeated the line that Scott liked to tell his actors: "Everything you do must cost you something. If not, we, the audience, will not be interested in taking any journey with you."

Scott was born on September 6, 1935, in Morristown, New Jersey, and attended Philips Exeter Academy, a private boarding school in New Hampshire. He went on to Harvard University, and earned his undergraduate degree from there in 1957 at a time when there were only a few dozen black students on the university's campus at all. Heading to New York City with plans for a career on the stage, he took acting, voice, and dance classes. Scott first gained attention for his role in a new four-person play by French playwright Jean Genet, Deathwatch, in 1958. His performance in the prison-set psychological thriller was commended by New York Times critic Louis Calta, who asserted that "Scott brings a proper note of repulsiveness to the part of the hero-worshipping weakling Maurice," and it also won him an Obie Award from the Village Voice newspaper in their annual honors of the best of the off-Broadway theater season.

Scott moved up to Broadway with his debut in The Cool World, a gritty urban drama set amidst contemporary gang violence in Harlem. The new play, which starred a young Billy Dee Williams and also featured James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson among the cast, had a brief two-night run before closing in February of 1960. A year later, Scott originated another role, this time as the Orderly in Edward Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith. Albee was a rising new playwright at the time, and chose as his subject matter the 1937 death of the legendary blues singer, who was gravely injured in an automobile accident but refused treatment by a whites-only hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Scott went on to originate several other notable roles in subsequent stage dramas, especially after he joined the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater ensemble in 1964. A new theater group attached to the prestigious performing-arts center, the company was headed by two outstanding theater directors of the era, Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead, and Scott was the only black actor among its performing ranks. He originated roles in After the Fall in 1964 and Incident at Vichy a year later, both from playwright Arthur Miller, and he also appeared in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions and in The Changeling during the same time period. When the 1965 fall theater season began, however, Kazan and Whitehead had been replaced, and the new directors for the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater informed Scott that his services would no longer be needed. In response, he wrote a letter to Variety, a prominent publication covering the entertainment-industry, in which he spoke of the need for desegregation in the arts. "I would be delighted to participate in any company prepared and willing to support and sustain the idea of an American theater," his letter read, according to according to New York Times writer Campbell Robertson, "and by that I mean a totally integrated theater."

Scott continued to appear, albeit infrequently, in significant new works for the stage for the rest of the decade. He originated roles in a pair of plays by Nigerian dramatist Wole Soyinka, The Strong Breed and The Trials of Brother Jero, both of which were set in the heated political turmoil of that country and which had prompted the Nigerian government to detain Soyinka at the time of both plays' New York City premieres. Scott starred in both, playing a college-educated schoolteacher at odds with the more tradition-bound residents of the village where he is sent to teach in The Strong Breed; in The Trials of Brother Jero, he was cast as a faux prophet. New York Times critic Dan Sullivan asserted that as the hapless teacher, "Scott gives a sensitive and sympathetic performance," but in the Brother Jero role "really shines…. Scott has you rolling in the aisles as he goes into fits of spiritual exaltation while surreptitiously checking the measurements of the newest little ‘sister of Moses’ to join the flock."

Despite such accolades, Scott turned to directing for the stage in the early 1970s. His last performance in a Broadway production came in 1970 in Les Blancs, a Lorraine Hansberry drama. His decision was partially influenced by the times, when "the literal notion of ‘black is beautiful,’" as he told New York Times writer Alvin Klein, came into public consciousness. "I wasn't getting cast because I was fair and I got angry at having to explain what or who I was. So I said, ‘I'll go somewhere where you don't have to look at me.’" In 1972, he was hired as the artistic director for the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and with it he became the first African American ever to hold such a post in a major American regional theater. He stayed there for two seasons, and eventually returned to New York and Broadway. He directed Morgan Freeman in The Mighty Gents in 1978, and over the next decade oversaw some notable productions, including the 25th anniversary staging of Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and Paul Robeson in 1988.

Paul Robeson featured Avery Brooks, a noted stage actor, in the title role. Scott and Brooks worked together for a number of years in various venues, including the Crossroads Theater of New Brunswick, New Jersey, considered one of the top African-American regional theater companies in the United States. The New Jersey city was also home to Rutgers University, where Scott began to teach stage directing at its Mason Gross School of the Arts in the early 1980s. He became head of the school's of directing program, and the post kept him from committing to other stage projects later in his career. In early 2006, however, he returned to Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park to direct Yellowman, a play by Dael Orlandersmith. On July 16 of that year, he died of natural causes at his home in Newark, New Jersey, at the age of 70. His achievements in American theater, both as a pioneering African American figure as well as a committed, dedicated director, were mourned by many of those he worked with over the years. "Hal's unique ability," a colleague from Cincinnati, Ed Stern, told the Cincinnati Post, was "to make things appear spontaneous that had been worked out beautifully. He loved actors and trusted them, and they believed in the moment."

At a Glance …

Born on September 6, 1935, in Morristown, NJ; died of natural causes on July 16, 2006, in Newark, NJ; son of Harold Russell and Janet (Gordon) Scott. Education: Harvard University, BA, 1957.

Career:

Stage actor in New York City, 1958-71; director of numerous stage productions for both Broadway and off-Broadway plays; Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, OH, artistic director, 1972-74; Design Institute National Arts Consortium, New York City, artistic director, 1979-81; Peterborough Players, New Hampshire, staff director, 1981-85, associate director, 1985-88, acting artistic director, 1989-90; Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts, co-adjunct professor, 1980-81, associate professor 1981-83, associate professor and head of directing program, 1983-87, professor and head of directing program, 1987-2006; Crossroads Theatre, New Brunswick, NJ, associate artist, 1988-2006.

Memberships:

Ensemble Studio Theatre; Theatre Communications Group (board of directors, 1988-2000s); Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers, Actors Equity Association, American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

Awards:

Obie Award for distinguished performance, Village Voice, 1959, for Deathwatch.

Sources

Periodicals

American Theatre, October 2006, p. 23.

Cincinnati Post, August 2, 2006, p. A4.

New York Times, October 10, 1958, p. 34; February 23, 1960, p. 38; March 2, 1961, p. 19; November 10, 1967, p. 60; September 25, 1988; December 26, 1999; August 2, 2006.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), August 1, 2006, p. 57.

Variety, August 7, 2006, p. 36.

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