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richard harrison 1934"de Lawd"
by Christopher Doty

Of all the Londoners who achieved fame across North America, only Richard Berry Harrison can claim to have played God.

 


Both of Harrison's parents were fugitive slaves who had escaped into Canada through the underground railroad in the 1850s. To escape the reach of American bounty hunters, the couple moved inland to London. They married here in 1854. Their fourth and most famous child was born on Sept. 29, 1864.

The young boy vented his energies into the theatre early in his life. He sold copies of the London Advertiser outside the city's theatres so he could chat up visiting actors. He took in performances whenever he had enough pocket change for the price of a cheap gallery bench. Afterwards, he would corral his friends into a barn near his parent's home so they could watch him re-enact the melodramas he had seen.

The children who attended those performances would be the last Londoners to see Harrison act in London for over half a century. The family left for Detroit when Harrision was still in his teens. A few hours after their departure, a gang of thugs calling themselves the Klux Clan burned their Wellington Street home.

After the death of his father Harrison attended the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art, funded by stints as a bellhop and a waiter. By the time he was 27, Harrison found he could eke out a small living reciting poetry and dramatic monologues on the legitimate stage. The sight of a black man performing the soliloquies of Shakespeare and the poems of Robert W. Service was a revelation for white audiences. The Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits picked up Harrison as an elocutionist.

Broadway came calling for Harrison in late 1929 when playwright Marc Connolly, a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, asked the 65-year-old actor to play the roll of God in his new play The Green Pastures. Connolly desperately needed an artist of Richardson's stature. Based on the first two books of the Old Testament, the script was in written in a folksy American Negro lore that would cleary be branded as racist today.

Richardson clearly had reservations about the enterprise: "I know you weren't trying to make fun of my people when you wrote the play, Mr. Connelly, but I wouldn't like to do something that might make Negroes feel I'd let them down," he reportedly told the author.

Friends eventually persuaded Harrison to take the part. Without an out-of-town try-out or a preview performance, The Green Pastures opened on Feb. 26, 1930 at the Mansfield Theatre on Broadway. As "de Lawd", Harrison made his entrance in a Prince Albert suit and a wide-brimmed felt hat.

The Green Pastures would run for 16 months and tour for an additional three years. Harrison himself would appear in over 1000 of those performances, non-stop. The following year Connolly won the Pulitzer prize for drama while Harrision was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for his contribution to "the edification of blacks."

"One might well say the play made him and without doubt he made the play the great success it was," wrote London reporter Art Gleason.

But as Harrison later explained, "Even bein' de Lawd ain't no bed of roses."

That was painfully clear for the former Londoner in early 1933 when the company was scheduled to perform at the National Theatre in Washington D.C. The theatre was a whites-only facility and management had no intention of suspending the policy. Ministers and black community leaders urged Harrison to intervene. Harrison refused - a decision that earned him a score of death threats. During his entire stay in Washington he was placed under guard for his own safety.

"Wherever I amI always try not to make myself conspicuous. All our people, I think, try to do the same," he later explained to a Toronto reporter.

The statement prompted black author Langston Hughes to dismiss Harrison as "Uncle Tom come back as God."

Fortunately for Harrison, the bulk of the Green Pastures tour was relatively serene, climaxing in October 1934 when the company pulled into the CPR station in London to give a performance at the Grand Theatre.

For the man who had once been known as "Little Doc" Harrison, it was the homecoming of a lifetime. He was given the freedom of the city and was the guest of honor at the London Rotary Club luncheon. Between shows, he toured his old boyhood haunts along the river as old friends and reporters looked on.

"They all told me that they knew all along, from the day I left home, that I would make good," said Harrison. "They didn't know anything about all the cheese and crackers and sardines and bologna I ate before I ever found any success."

The Green Pastures had given Harrison the fame and security he had searched for all his life. But by early 1935 the endless performances and the grueling touring schedule were taking their toll. On the afternoon of what would have been his 1658th performance, Harrison was too ill to go on. Two weeks later he died of a stroke.

"Everyone loved him," wrote Marc Connelly. "And with him I feel that a great deal of sheer goodness has gone out of the world."

originally printed in The London Free Press, February 7, 1999

Richard Harrison Links

The Richard Harrison Plaque Project
News report on plans to establish a heritage plaque on the site of Harrison's boyhood home in London, Ontario, Canada. Your web master is behind the project.

The Green Pastures
Study of the pros and cons of Marc Connelly's legendary - and controversial - biblical fable.

Richard Berry Harrison Biography
Detailed look at the 71-year career of the most famous black actor of the 1930s.