This week's blog title comes from Langston Hughe's poem "Note on Commercial Theatre," which is spoken by Brenda Braxton in the 1979 musical When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate. In researching last week’s blog post, History Has Its Eyes, I was fascinated by the biography of the musical's director, Vinnette Carroll, and decided to spotlight her incredible career in this week's post.
Carroll was one of the first African American women to direct on Broadway, and the West End. She was nominated three times for a Tony Award, and was the first (and regrettably, still the only), African American woman to be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Director. She was an Obie and Emmy Award winner, and celebrated in her lifetime as a driving force for theatre by, and about, African American people.
Over the course of her career, Vinnette Carroll created and wrote 16 musical plays, many of which were written with long-time collaborator Micki Grant. Carroll also collaborated with Alvin Ailey and Langston Hughes. Her work has been credited with launching the careers of actors such as Cicley Tyson, Clarence Williams III, James Earl Jones, Jennifer Holliday, Brenda Braxton, and Cleavant Derricks, among many others.
Born in New York in 1922, Carroll spent most of her childhood in Jamaica. She returned to New York City to attend high school and, thanks to her father’s thriving dental practice, enjoyed a rich cultural life attending theatre and receiving music lessons.
To satisfy her father, Carroll trained to be a psychologist. Shortly after leaving her PhD program at Columbia University in 1948, Carroll sought to pursue her true passion as an actor. She attended the New School and the Actors Studio, training with Erwin Piscator, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler.
Upon completion of her actor training in the early 1950s, Carroll found regular acting work, but was frustrated by the limited range of roles made available to her as an African American woman: maids, and roles that reinforced negative stereotypes of people of color. In response, Carroll created her own work and successfully toured a one woman show.
Carroll began teaching acting at the High School for the Performing Arts in 1955, a position she held for 11 years. During this time, Carroll developed a passion for directing.
In 1964, Carroll won an Emmy Award for the television production Beyond the Blues, a dramatization of works by African American poets.
In 1968, Carroll joined the New York State Council on the Arts as the new director for the Ghetto Arts Program. The Ghetto Arts Program (GAP) sought to provide collaborative theatre experiences for African American and Hispanic communities in New York, and establish a new repertory company that created new work.
In her capacity as director of GAP, Carroll founded the Urban Arts Corps (UAC). Within a few years Carroll left GAP and became the artistic director of the UAC. The UAC trained a troupe of actors from African American and Hispanic backgrounds, who wrote and performed original material. Later knowns the Urban Arts Theatre, the UAC worked in schools, colleges, and prisons to bring theatre, and theatre training, to minority audiences.
Throughout her 10 years with the Urban Arts Corps, Carroll directed over 50 productions. Musical highlights include But Never Jam Today, Don’t Bother Me I, I Can’t Cope, and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, which first opened at the UAC in 1970, opened on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre in 1972. The musical earned Carroll a Tony nomination for Best Director of a Musical and played 1065 performances. It will be performed in 2018 as part of Encores! Off Center’s summer program.
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God transferred to Broadway in 1976, earning Carroll her second Tony nomination for Best Director. The musical was revived on Broadway in 1980, 1982, and 1996.
But Never Jam Today, was an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland featuring gospel and calypso-infused music. The musical adaptation began life as Alice, and after much re-working and several off- and off-off-Broadway runs opened on Broadway in 1979. It was a commercial flop and closed within a week of opening.
In 1984, living in Florida in “semi-retirement,” Carroll founded the Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company. The company was renamed the Metropolitan Diversity Theatre at Carroll's request in 2000 after she suffered a debilitating stroke. The theatre is now the home of Fort Lauderdale’s Cinema Paradiso.
Despite Carroll’s immense body of work, just one of her shows was filmed live for public distribution: When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate. The musical had a short run at the UAC in January 1979, before being presented as part of the Lincoln Center’s Black Theatre Festival in May of the same year. An hour-length version of the musical co-directed by Carroll was presented on PBS in June 1979. When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate was released on VHS in 1999, and on DVD in 2003. Sections of the musical are currently available on YouTube.
In the capture of When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate, we get a mere glimpse of Carroll’s incredible talent as a writer and director. One wonders if Carroll had been born white, and a male, how much more of her work we could have continued to enjoy watching today.