Washington, Fredi (1903–1994)
Washington, Fredi (1903–1994)
African-American actress and founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America. Name variations: Edith Warren. Born Fredricka Carolyn Washington on December 23, 1903, in Savannah, Georgia; died on June 28, 1994, in Stamford, Connecticut; graduated from Julia Richmond High School in New York; attended Egri School of Dramatic Writing and the Christophe School of Languages; married trombonist Lawrence Brown (divorced); married dentist Anthony H. Bell (died).
Shuffle Along (1921); Black Boy (1926); Sweet Chariot (1930); Singin' the Blues (1931); Run, Little Chillun (1933); Mamba's Daughters (1939); Lysistrata (1946); A Long Way from Home (1948); How Long Til Summer (1949).
Hot Chocolates (1929); Great Day (1929); Black and Tan Fantasy (1929); The Emperor Jones (1933); The Old Man of the Mountain (1933); Mills Blue Rhythm Band (1933); Imitation of Life (1934); Drums of the Jungle (1935); Quanga (1936); One Mile from Heaven (1937).
Actress Fredi Washington, who was typecast in mainstream films as the "tragic mulatto" during her early career, worked to improve dramatic roles for black actors through the Negro Actors Guild of America, which she founded. She was born in 1903 in Savannah, Georgia, to a black mother and a white father. She picked up the nickname "Fredi" from her mother who died when the girl was only 11 years old. As the eldest daughter, Washington assumed responsibility for running the household until her father's remarriage, after which she and her sister Isabell (Powell) entered Saint Elizabeth's Convent in Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania. Eventually Washington moved to New York to live with her grandmother and an aunt. She graduated from Julia Richmond High School and completed further studies at two professional schools, Egri School of Dramatic Writing and the Christophe School of Languages.
Washington began her stage career at age 16 as a chorus member of the Happy Honeysuckles. While working as a bookkeeper at W.C. Handy's Black Swan Records in the early 1920s, she learned of a dance audition for the black musical Shuffle Along. Although she had no formal dance training, Washington landed a spot in the chorus with the assistance of black choreographer Elida Webb , earning $35 a week.
During a stint at Manhattan's Club Alabam, producer Lee Shubert recommended that she audition for the Broadway play Black Boy (1926), based on the life of prizefighter Jack Johnson and starring Paul Robeson. Under the stage name Edith Warren, she landed the part of a fair-skinned black girl who passes for white but in the end identifies with the black community. The play opened to mixed reviews, but Washington earned critical notice and the play drew theatergoers curious to see if she were as white as reputed by the media. The play established an unfortunate precedent in that Washington became typecast as the "tragic mulatto"—a fair-skinned black woman who decides to pass for white. After taking a break from acting to tour Europe as a dancer at the end of the decade, she returned to America and starred in
several films, including Hot Chocolates and Great Day (both 1929).
The film Black and Tan Fantasy (1929) was primarily a vehicle for Duke Ellington and his orchestra, but it also established Washington as a dancer in the eyes of American movie audiences. She also appeared in Sweet Chariot (1930), a musical play based on Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. In 1931, Washington and her sister Isabell starred in Singin' the Blues, a melodramatic depiction of Harlem night life. Two years later, she won a starring role in Hall Johnson's folk drama Run, Little Chillun.
During the 1930s, Washington was regarded as one of the most prominent black dramatic actresses of the day, creating strong roles in such movies as 1933's The Emperor Jones in which she played a Harlem prostitute opposite Robeson, the protagonist who rises from a Pullman car porter to emperor of an island of blacks. Her appearance in this movie disquieted the Will Hays Office—the movie industry's censoring agency—which insisted that she reshoot her scenes in dark makeup so that audiences would not perceive the light-skinned Washington as a white woman making love to a black man.
Washington went on to experience success in other films, such as The Old Man of the Mountain and Mills Blue Rhythm Band (both 1933), but it was the movie Imitation of Life (1934), based on the novel by Fannie Hurst and co-starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers , that would provide her greatest success as well as her greatest failure. In the role, she passes as a white woman, rejecting her black mother (Beavers) and then experiencing intense remorse upon her mother's death. Although the film met with mixed critical reviews, it was a success at the box office. According to Notable Black American Women, the film "served to deepen society's ambivalence toward her as a person and as an actress." And although Washington was praised for her performance, she realized that serious dramatic roles outside the stereotypically tragic mulatto evaded her. In 1935, she played a half-breed in Drums of the Jungle. Two years later, she played a woman who rears a white foundling and later becomes her governess and maid in One Mile From Heaven. In the late 1930s Washington returned to the Broadway stage when she appeared opposite Ethel Waters in Mamba's Daughters. On stage, Washington felt she did not experience the same typecasting as in film.
Sensing that typecast roles had been her undoing, Washington became more politically oriented and founded the Negro Actors Guild of America, serving as its first executive secretary from 1937 to 1938. The guild's mission was to improve roles for black actors and also to eliminate racially biased material from plays and shows. Washington also became the theater editor and columnist for The People's Voice, a weekly newspaper published by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Behind the scenes during the 1940s and 1950s, Washington worked as a casting consultant for such films as Carmen Jones (1943), Porgy and Bess (1943), and Cry, the Beloved Country (1952). She continued to perform on stage in A Long Way From Home (1948) and How Long Til Summer (1949), and appeared on "The Goldbergs," a weekly television drama that starred Gertrude Berg .
A civil-rights activist, Washington was an active participant in the Joint Actors Equity Theater League Committee on Hotel Accommodations and, through the NAACP, worked for more black participation in the arts. She died on June 28, 1994, in Stamford, Connecticut, at the age of 90.
Obituary, in The Day [New London, CT]. June 30, 1994.
Obituary, in Time. July 11, 1994, p. 15.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland