Thompson, Tazewell 1954–
Tazewell Thompson 1954–
Tazewell Thompson is one of a small number of African American directors who are transforming the theater in the United States. For more than a decade Thompson has been attracting new audiences and helping theater goers of all kinds to “understand America in its many racial and cultural dimensions,” to quote Jack E. White of Time.His repertoire includes the works of up and coming African American playwrights as well as classics of world theater.
Thompson grew up in Harlem where his grandmother, Broadway actress Florine Thompson, gave him the stability lacking in his dysfunctional family. His grandmother also opened his eyes to the plays of Shakespeare and classical Greek dramatists and was instrumental in his attending a private school where his teachers nurtured his interest in acting. Thompson attended the Actors Company School and began his acting career as a teenager. He later taught theater at St. Ann’s School and Columbia High School in New York City, while at the same time working as a professional actor and director. Although Thompson performed frequently, the lack of good acting roles for African American men led him to concentrate his efforts on directing. In the mid-1980s he directed works at such theaters as the New Federal Theater, the Soho Repertory, and Musical Theater Works—all in New York City—Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, New York, and the Huntington Theater in Boston, Massachusetts.
When Thompson directed The Second Hurricane, an opera by American composer Aaron Copland, at the New Federal Theater in 1985, he came to the attention of Zelda Fichandler, the founder and producing director of the Arena Stage, the most respected regional theater in Washington, D.C. In 1989 Fichandler hired Thompson to direct several productions at the Arena Stage. While his mounting of an all-black production of Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie with Ruby Dee was not well received, he very successfully staged the cross-cultural comedy Playboy of the West Indies and the gospel musical Abyssinia, for which he won a Helen Hayes Award.
After the success of Playboy of the West Indies and Abyssinia, Fichandler offered Thompson the position of artistic associate—and with it an artistic home. Thompson saw the opportunity for growth for both himself and the Arena Stage. Referring to Fichandler as a “soul sister,” Thompson told Joe Brown of the Washington Post, “I thought, this is someone I can learn a great deal from and who can also learn from me about the sensitivities, about how Arena might be perceived in the black community.” He continued, “I also felt it to be very clear that she understood that when I came to Arena Stage that I was not going to assimilate, that I was not going to move into and get lost there, because of who I am. I’m an Afro American man.”
Throughout his career, and long before it became politically correct, Thompson has attempted to racially
Born Tazewell Alfred Thompson, Jr., May 27, 1954 ,in New York, NY. Name pronounced “Tazzwell”; son of Tazewell Alfred, Sr., and Annabelle (Lowrey) Thompson. Education: Attended Actors Company School.
St. Ann’s Private School, Brooklyn, NY, drama teacher, 1980-83; Columbia High School, New York City, drama teacher, 1983-85; Arena Stage, Washington, DC, associate artistic director and resident director, 1988-91; Syracuse Stage, Syracuse, NY, artistic director, 1992-95; independent director, 1995—.
Selected awards: Villager Award for Outstanding Performance by an actor off-Broadway; Adulco Award, 1985, for The Second Hurricane; Helen Hayes Award, 1987, for Abyssinia.
Member: Actor’s Equity, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs.
diversify the casts and production teams of the theatrical companies under his direction. “Taz’s multiculturalism doesn’t come from current lingo,” Fichandler told Washington Post staff writer Judith Weinraub. “It comes from the deep human base on which he operates.” During his tenure at Arena Stage, Thompson directed a number of productions, among them Jar the Floor and Before It Hits Home by African American dramatist Cheryl West, Yerma by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle by German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
In 1989 The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a interpretation of a Chinese legend that makes modern political statements, opened Arena Stage’s fortieth anniversary season. The plot of the work revolves around the heroic act of the servant Grusha who risks much to save the life of an abandoned child. Writing for the New York Times, theater critic Mel Gussow called Thompson’s staging an “imaginative production,” adding, “Mr. Thompson stresses the folkloric nature of the piece…. Spread over the Arena’s wide stage, the tale unfolds with a storybook simplicity.” Thompson’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle was nominated for four Helen Hayes awards, including outstanding production and best director.
As Thompson has seen it, part of his mission has been to entice African Americans and other minorities into theaters. To reach out to them he has staged works by African American playwrights, including the Cheryl West works already mentioned, Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III, and August Wilson’s Fences. Thompson also believes the theater is a place where authoritative stereotyping can be eliminated. “It’s in the theater where you can come and really educate and liberate and act up. And revitalize and get angry and celebrate,” Thompson explained to Brown. “It’s in the theater where we want to see clashing and lovemaking and see our sins committed onstage.” To boost attendance, Thompson has also used marketing and promotional efforts, for example, sending newsletters to ticket subscribers and speaking at school and community functions.
Thompson, a risk taker, has been willing to invest in new talent. He mounted Before It Hits Home, West’s play about an African American family dealing with AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), and her Jar the Floor, which revolves around a great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and daughter who gather to celebrate the great-grandmother’s birthday and hash out their differences in the process. Lloyd Rose of the Washington Post called Jar the Floor “a fresh, spirited evening in the theater,” adding that Thompson “keeps the emotional shiftings clear and the evening taut.”
After a four and a half year stint at Arena Stage, Thompson moved to the Acting Company and then Syracuse Stage. In Syracuse Thompson produced such works as West’s Jar the Floor and Holiday Heart, as well as If We Are Women by Joanna McClelland Glass, and The Indolen t Boys by Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday. Jar the Floor proved to be one of Syracuse Stage’s most popular plays, and Holiday Heart was mounted at Syracuse and other regional theaters before being staged at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City in 1995. Holiday Heart follows the actions of a flamboyant drag queen named Holiday Heart, who takes in a 13-year-old girl, Niki, when her drug-addicted mother abandons her. Thompson’s directing was often cited as the play’s only moving force. New York theater critics gave it mixed reviews.
On June 30,1995, Thompson resigned from Syracuse Stage. Since then he has directed productions on a freelance basis, including Black Star Line at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, vol. 12, Gale, 1994, pp. 405-06.
Back Stage, March 10, 1995, p. 52.
Boston Globe, November 26, 1989, p. B2; November 30, 1989, p. 101; March 7, 1991, p. 77; February 24, 1991, p. A1.
Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1994, pp. F3, F9.
National Theatre Critics’ Reviews, vol. 56, no. 3, 1995, pp. 69-72.
New York, February 16, 1987, p. 94; March 6, 1995, p. 56.
New York Times, October 16, 1989, p. C19; October 1, 1990, p. C14; April 12, 1992, section 1, p. 65; February 24, 1994, pp. C13, C18; February 22, 1995, p. C11.
Time, January 18, 1993, p. 60.
Variety, March 16, 1992, p. 68; February 27, 1994, p. 82.
Wall Street Journal, February 28, 1995; February 7, 1996, p. A12.
Washington Post, November 5, 1989, pp. G1, G10; January 12, 1989, pp. C1, C4; September 28, 1990, p. C1; October 11, 1991, p. D6; December 16, 1991, pp. D1, D6; June 16, 1992, p. E2.
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