With the recent death of August Wilson, the American theater community lost one of its most luminous stars. Yet that star might never have risen were it not for his close association and friendship with director Lloyd Richards, who died this month of heart failure at the age of 87. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Richards came to America via Canada and was raised in Detroit. He attended Wayne State University, where he developed an interest in the theater, and eventually moved to New York, where he supported himself with odd jobs and took on roles in small theater productions. In 1959, a time when blacks were mainly relegated to demeaning roles as eager-to-please domestics or comedic buffoons, Richards made history as the first black director to work on Broadway, when he directed Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. It was an event comparable in significance to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in baseball. Amy Sullivan, executive director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where Richards headed the National Playwrights Conference for three decades, remembers Richards as “a quiet, gentle man with a will of steel, who always got the job done.”
It was during his tenure at the O’Neill Center that Richards’ reputation as a director and teacher soared. He was known as a writers’ director, frequently demanding rewrites during productions but always open minded and never gratuitously critical.
But the jewel in Richards’ crown was the phenomenal work he did in tandem with August Wilson. The two were friends and colleagues who shared similar backgrounds, as well as a deep love and understanding of the theater. Richards directed six of Wilson’s plays on Broadway: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984); Fences (1987), for which Richards won a Tony Award; Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988); The Piano Lesson (1990); Two Trains Running (1992) and Seven Guitars (1996).
We will not see the likes of Richards or Wilson again. As Sullivan says of Richards, “He was one of the greatest influences on world theater. He changed the theatrical landscape of American theater, and certainly the color of it.”?