Remembering Vinnette Carroll: Pioneering African-American Director and Her Connection to Ford’s

Did you know that since reopening as a working theatre in 1968, Ford’s Theatre has been the birthplace of more than 35 world-premiere plays and musicals? This means that on average, one out of every five or six shows produced by Ford’s Theatre Society is a world-premiere! In fact, during the last 10 years alone, we have produced six premieres.

These new works produced by Ford’s have gone on to have long runs at many other theatres, with some even transferring to Broadway. Vinnette Carroll, the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway and the only Tony-nominated African-American woman in the Directing category, was behind several productions that went to Broadway.

Carroll’s Early Career

Carroll’s career as a renowned trailblazing actor, director and playwright began in an unconventional way: she received a master’s degree in psychology from New York University, and worked briefly as a clinical psychologist in the New York City school system. Carroll was also a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, but chose to leave her studies in order to pursue an acting career. In 1948, Carroll received a scholarship to study acting at the Edwin Pescator dramatic workshop at the New School under Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, and her artistic career began.

The New York native began honing her craft as a performing artist and playwright during the 1950s. Her career took off soon after she completed an extensive tour of her one-woman show. Carroll’s impressive talents and vigorous passion for the arts afforded her the opportunity to make her 1957 acting Broadway debut in the short-lived revival of A Small War on Murray Hill. Though the show quickly closed, it was just the beginning of a history-making career.

Ford’s Theatre Work

The first show of the Ford’s Theatre 1971-72 season was a musical written by Micki Grant and conceived and directed by Carroll titled Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. A contemporary commentary on the African-American experience, this gospel-infused musical revue premiered at Ford’s on September 15, 1971, then transferred to Broadway on April 19, 1972, where it ran for 1,065 performances.

New York Times reviewer Mel Gussow praised the show as “hand-clapping, foot-tapping, sky-reaching …[and] body-swaying.” The Broadway run received four Tony nominations, including Best Musical and Best Director of a Musical for Carroll.

In April 1974, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope returned to Ford’s, where its original four-week run was extended to an astounding 21 weeks.

In 1975, Ford’s Theatre Society produced and premiered "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God," a musical based on the Book of Matthew. Photo of Frankie Hewitt and cast by Milton Williams, courtesy of Lisa Cassara.

Carroll followed up her Broadway success with another hit—the world-premiere of her original musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. Based on the Gospel of Matthew, the show tells the biblical story of Christ’s birth through resurrection. The show was initially commissioned for Italy’s Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in 1975, then played at Ford’s for five months. Several months later, it returned to Ford’s for another six-week engagement before heading to Broadway. The show was nominated for four Tony Awards, including two for Carroll, one for Best Director and one as a writer for Best Book of a Musical.

 

Carroll’s Artistic Legacy

Today, we not only remember Carroll as the visionary behind one of Ford’s most notable productions, but as a fearless leader in the artistic world. In the midst of the civil rights and the black theatre movement, industry professionals began to take notice of Carroll’s artistic capabilities.

As an actor, Carroll won an Obie in 1962 for her role in Moon Over a Rainbow Shawl, and she received an Emmy Award in 1964 for co-conceiving and supervising the TV program Beyond the Blues. Her role as star and director of the Langston Hughes play Prodigal Son was the catalyst to Carroll’s regional and Broadway directorial career. In 1967, Carroll founded the Urban Arts Corps in NYC.

Perhaps nothing sums up Carroll’s indomitable spirit better than her own words. In a 1967 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Carroll shared part of her experience as an artist, saying: “I have had a great deal of hurt in the theater both as a Negro and as a woman, but I don’t get immobilized by it.”

We at Ford’s commemorate and celebrate Carroll’s work, and are proud to have been a part of her incredible legacy.

Further Reading:

Learn more about Carroll and her contributions to American Theatre in the following essays:

Vinnette Carroll: African American Director and Playwright by Calvin A. McClinton. Excerpted from Black Lives: Essays in African American Biography, by James L. Conyers. This chapter, excerpted from American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century, by Anne L. Fliotsos, Wendy Vierow.

LeVern Hamer is an Artistic Programming intern and a graduating senior at Howard University where he is studying theatre arts administration.