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Richards, Beah (1926–2000)

Richards, Beah (1926–2000)

African-American actress, poet, and playwright. Born Beah Richardson in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 12, 1926 (one source cites 1920); died of emphysema in Vicksburg on September 14, 2000; daughter of Wesley Richardson (a Baptist minister) and Beulah Richardson (a seamstress); attended Dillard University in New Orleans; married artist Hugh Harrell (divorced).

Selected filmography:

Take a Giant Step (1960); The Miracle Worker (1962); Gone Are the Days! (1963); Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967); In the Heat of the Night (1967); Hurry Sundown (1967); The Great White Hope (1970); Mahogany (1975); Inside Out (1987); Drugstore Cowboy (1989); Homer and Eddie (1989); Beloved (1998).

Beah Richards, whose career on stage and in movies and television stretched over half a century, was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1926. She knew from an early age that she was going to be an actor, although there were no theaters in Vicksburg, and certainly not for her; she later recalled how, growing up in the segregated South long before the civil-rights movement, she was stoned and jeered at by white children on her way to school.

Richards left Mississippi to attend Dillard University in New Orleans, and then moved to San Diego, California, where she studied dance and acting. She made her professional debut there at the Old Globe Theater in 1948. Two years later, she moved to New York City, where like many other struggling actors she found stage work irregularly. To supplement her income, she taught in a charm school. One of her first major New York roles was in 1954, as the grandmother in the Off-Broadway revival of Take a Giant Step (six years later, despite being still in her 30s, she would play the same role in the film version). In 1958, with a number of others, including Godfrey Cambridge, Richards cofounded the Harlem Community Theater. The following year she was cast as the understudy for the part of Lena Younger in the Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry 's Raisin in the Sun. Richards landed her first on-stage role on Broadway in 1959, in The Miracle Worker, based on the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy . Two years later, she was back on Broadway in the hit satire Purlie Victorious, written by Ossie Davis and also starring Davis and Ruby Dee . All three would reprise their roles in the 1963 film version of the play, Gone Are the Days!

Her breakthrough role came in the 1965 Broadway play The Amen Corner, by James Baldwin. Richards starred in the central role of Sister Margaret Alexander, a woman who has dazzled her Harlem congregation for many years with her charisma and aggressive piety. But when her estranged husband, a good-for-nothing musician, comes home to die, she has to confront her false piety, and she risks losing her congregation

and her son, whom she has tried to keep on the straight and narrow. Although the play closed in New York after only 12 weeks (she then went with it to Los Angeles), Richards won rave reviews. She received the Theatre World Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance, and topped the Drama Critics Poll of the trade magazine Variety. She worked steadily in theater, movies, and television for the rest of her life.

Richards also wrote poetry and plays, including an exploration of segregation, All's Well That Ends; in 1971, her play One Is a Crowd, which she had written 20 years earlier, received excellent reviews in Los Angeles. A collection of poems, A Black Woman Speaks, was published in 1974, including the long title poem which she often performed on stage as a one-woman show. The following year she won an Emmy award for her performance of A Black Woman Speaks on television. Richards frequently directed television shows and plays as well, often in California, where she made her home for many years, and taught courses at the University of Southern California. In her writing and her public-speaking engagements, she was a voice against racism and against the employment of African-American actors in unflattering, stereotypical roles. During one conference on stereotyping African-Americans in film, she pointed out that any actor, regardless of personal fame, could change social stereotypes simply by refusing to perform such roles. She herself rejected many such demeaning roles, but worked steadily nonetheless.

Throughout her career, Richards was often cast as a mother or grandmother, invariably dignified and wise, including her role as Sidney Poitier's mother in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), for which she received an Academy Award nomination, as James Earl Jones' mother in The Great White Hope (1970), and in numerous guest spots on television series. She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1974, and won another Emmy in the late 1980s for a guest role on the series "Frank's Place." She made her final appearance on film in 1998, as Baby Suggs in the screen version of Toni Morrison 's novel Beloved, opposite Oprah Winfrey . Richards suffered from emphysema in her last years, but continued working, and won another Emmy award for a guest appearance on the television drama "The Practice" in September 2000. She died that same month in Vicksburg, where she had returned earlier in the year.


The Day [New London, CT]. September 16, 2000.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1998.

The New York Times. September 16, 2000, p. A13.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Patrick Moore , Associate Professor of English, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

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