Born Lloyd George Richards, June 29, 1919, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; died of heart failure, June 29, 2006, in New York, NY. Theater director. Though an unfamiliar name to many, Lloyd Richards was one of the most important figures in American theater during the latter half of the twentieth century. He was the first African American to direct a Broadway play, and discovered playwright August Wilson. Richards helped shape the Pulitzer Prizewinner's first significant works for the stage, and directed their acclaimed Broadway runs. Wilson's "gallant stories of black Americans refusing to be ground down no doubt chimed with Richards' own past," noted a Times of London tribute.
Richards was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1919, and moved with his family across the Canadian border to Detroit when he was four. There, his carpenter-father found work in one of the automobile factories, but died when Richards was nine. The rest of his youth was marked by poverty and hardship: His mother worked as a domestic servant to support her five children, but she went blind within a few years; Richards shined shoes and swept floors in a barbershop to help put food on the table.
Richards first became interested in theater in his teens, and majored in it at Wayne State University in Detroit. After he graduated in 1944, he served in the Army Air Corps' segregated division of fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Back in Detroit, he sought stage roles while working as a disc jockey, and moved to New York City in 1947. In between Off-Broadway roles, he waited tables and found steady work as an acting teacher, and through these drama workshops he met another struggling actor, Sidney Poitier. Of West Indian descent like Richards, Poitier introduced him to playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and that led to Richards' first-time foray into directing. The play was A Raisin in the Sun , a landmark work in both American theater as well as African-American drama when it opened at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater on March 11, 1959. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, in- cluding Best Director, and gave Richards the distinction of being the first African American ever to direct a play on Broadway.
Despite the success of A Raisin in the Sun , Richards had a difficult time bringing another hit to the stage. He directed an adaptation of the Richard Wright novel The Long Dream and another for James Baldwin's The Amen Corner , and then ventured into works that were not exclusively focused on African-American themes; here he ran into issues with producers, however, and was canned. From 1966 to 1972 he served as head of the acting program at New York University, and in 1968 took a concurrent post as director of the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. This was an annual summer workshop which hosted well-known and up-and-coming playwrights to bring a work in progress and finesse it to a final draft with the help of a resident cast. Many of the plays that came to the Center went on to become Broadway classics during Richards' 31-year tenure, including Agnes of God and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom .
The latter play was Richards' first with playwright August Wilson, and it marked the debut of Wilson's historic ten-play cycle chronicling ten decades in African-American life in the twentieth century. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom made its Broadway debut in 1984, directed by Richards, and three years later he won a Tony Award for directing Fences , another play by Wilson. He also directed The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars before their professional relationship ended in the mid-1990s.
Richards' work at the O'Neill Center led to his hiring at Yale University as the dean of its prestigious School of Drama. He also served as artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre during the same time, from 1979 to 1991. Both are known as a training ground for some of the best performers and playwrights of the next generation, and Richards' tenure there was a long and productive one. He staged the classics as well as works by contemporary playwrights, and launched Winterfest, the Theatre's annual showcase for four new plays. During the rehearsal process, he won praise for keeping his own influence out of the works and instead encouraged the playwrights to become involved—a situation avoided in many repertory companies as too fraught with peril for the egos involved. But Richards was often described as a Buddha-like dispenser of advice, known for saying nothing until he found the right words. "He'd say one word or one sentence, and it would just open the door to a whole world in approaching the character," actor Charles S. Dutton told Campbell Robertson in the New York Times . Richards retired from Yale in 1991, and from the O'Neill Center in 1999. In his later years he suffered from cardiovascular disease, and died of heart failure on June 29, 2006, at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It was his 87th birthday. Survivors include his wife, Barbara Davenport Richards, a onetime Broadway dancer he wed in 1957, and their sons, Scott and Thomas.
Chicago Tribune , July 1, 2006, sec. 2, p. 10; Los Angeles Times , July 1, 2006, p. B16; New York Times , July 1, 2006, p. B10; Times (London), July 7, 2006, p. 63; Washington Post , July 1, 2006, p. B6.