When he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1994 L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, Nick Stewart gave an acceptance speech in which he spoke of his dedication to the theater and to the craft of acting, and of what it was like working at a time when black actors were almost exclusively relegated to ingratiating buffoons or “happy-to-please” servants. Listening to him speak, there was no denying his passion for the art, or the breadth of his knowledge and experience. He died last month at the age of 90. Stewart was born on March 10, 1910, in Harlem. By the time he was 14, he was tap dancing and doing standup comedy at the Hoofers Club, literally following in the footsteps of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Stewart honed his formidable talents on the vaudeville circuit, was a regular attraction at the famed Cotton Club, and shared billing with such notables as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In 1936, while touring with Cab Calloway in Los Angeles, he caught the attention of Mae West and was signed for a role in Go West, Young Man. Stewart eventually worked in numerous films, including Song of the South, Stormy Weather, Cabin in the Sky,Carmen Jones, Silver Streak and Hollywood Shuffle. He also worked in radio and television, appearing in the popular 1950s Amos ’n’ Andy TV series as the janitor Lightnin’ — the kind of shuffling, dim-bulb stereotype he came to resent.
But of all Stewart’s accomplishments, the most significant — and the one that gave him the most satisfaction — was the Ebony Showcase Theater, which he co-founded with his wife, Edna, in 1950. The showcase brought quality theater into the community, and gave black actors a place to sharpen their talents in roles other than the likes of Lightnin’. John Amos, Isabel Sanford, Al Freeman Jr., Nichelle Nichols and Margaret Avery all graced Ebony’s stage. The Showcase was also a community center that offered young people classes in dance, writing, photography and television production. In recent years, the Stewarts experienced financial difficulties that resulted in the theater being foreclosed. It was razed two years ago, and the city plans to build a new performing-arts center on the site.
Stewart is survived by his wife, Edna; his son, Christopher; daughter, Valarie; and three grandchildren.