All achievers

Lloyd Richards

Tony Award-winning Director

If you aspire at all, you're taking a risk. If you aspire as a young black person to something where there is not a beaten path, you're taking a risk. So risk is nothing new in your life. But then, some risks cost more than others. I never decided to take risks with my life, I just had no choice.

Lloyd Richards was born in Toronto, Canada in 1919. His family moved to Detroit, Michigan not long after he was born. Lloyd Richards was only nine years old when his father died, leaving his mother to raise five children alone in the depths of the Depression. Life became still more difficult for the Richards family when Mrs. Richards became blind. Lloyd, only 13, went to work to help support the struggling family.

1958: Publicity still of Canadian-American stage director Lloyd Richards. (John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive)

The Richards family believed in the importance of education, and despite their difficult circumstances, all the children were encouraged to study hard and go to college. Richards entered Wayne University in Detroit, but his studies were interrupted by World War II. He volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps and was in training with the nation’s first unit of black pilots — the Tuskegee Airmen — when the war ended in 1945.

Lloyd Richards in The Decision at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, 1950s. (Courtesy of Lloyd Richards)
1950s: Lloyd G. Richards in The Decision at the Greenwich Mews Theatre. Richards studied law at Wayne University where instead he found his way into the theatrical arts after serving in the U.S. Army Air Force. (© Lloyd Richards)

On returning to Wayne University, Richards pursued his interest in drama, learning all aspects of theater and radio production. After graduation, he started a theater group in Detroit with a handful of friends and classmates. At that time, the American theater was entirely centered in New York City; Richards moved there in 1947 to pursue an acting career. Roles for African American actors were hard to come by, but Richards worked on Broadway in Freight and The Egghead and on radio throughout the 1950s. He also taught acting and directed Off-Broadway.

Playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun and was the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award.
Playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry authored A Raisin in the Sun and was the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. Among Lloyd Richards’ many accomplishments is his staging of the original production of A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway to standing ovations in 1959.

In 1958, Richards galvanized Broadway with his production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. This production, a realistic portrayal of a contemporary black working class family in Chicago, began a new era in the representation of African Americans on the American stage.

During the 1960s, he directed the Broadway productions The Long DreamThe Moon BesiegedI Had a Ball and The Yearling.

Edward Albee and Richard Barr (both seated at the table, Albee on the left) listen to a question at the first National Playwrights Conference, 1965. Lloyd Richards served as the Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference — the O'Neill Center's founding program — for 32 years.
Edward Albee and Richard Barr, both seated at the table, listen to a question at the first National Playwrights Conference, 1965. Lloyd Richards served as the Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference — the O’Neill Center’s founding program — for 32 years. Richards championed several generations of young playwrights.

Lloyd Richards became head of the actor training program at New York University’s School of the Arts, in 1966. He was Professor of Theater and Cinema at Hunter College in New York City before he was tapped, in 1979, to become Dean of the prestigious Yale University School of Drama. At the same time he became Artistic Director of the highly influential Yale Repertory Theatre.

Lloyd Richards’ most notable partnership, forged in the 1980s, was with August Wilson, who wrote a 10-part cycle on the African-American experience in the 20th century, before his death in 2005. Wilson was a theater novice in 1982 when Richards selected his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for a reading at the playwrights’ conference at the O’Neill Theater. Richards, who led the summer workshop for 32 years, later premiered August Wilson’s play at the Yale Repertory Theatre and directed its Broadway debut in fall 1984. In the ensuing years, he directed five more of Wilson’s plays, including The Piano Lesson and Fences, which earned Richards a 1987 Tony Award for Best Director.
James Earl Jones in Fences by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards, 1985.
1985: James Earl Jones in Fences by playwright August Wilson, directed by Lloyd Richards. Fences explores the evolving African-American experience and examines race relations through a promising Negro Baseball League player who is now a garbage man and how his bitterness affects his loved ones. The play won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play.

Throughout his career, Lloyd Richards sought to discover and develop new plays and playwrights, as a member of the Playwrights’ selection committee of the Rockefeller Foundation and of the New American Plays program of the Ford Foundation, and as Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center from 1968 to 1999. Richards’s long search for a major new American playwright bore fruit with the 1984 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. Throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, Richards directed the Yale Rep and New York productions of the successive installments of August Wilson’s multi-part chronicle of African American life. The plays in this cycle include FencesJoe Turner’s Come and GoneThe Piano LessonTwo Trains Running and Seven Guitars. Lloyd Richards’s productions for television included segments of Roots: The Next GenerationBill Moyers’ Journal and Robeson, a presentation on the life of the African American actor and activist Paul Robeson, who was an early inspiration for the young Lloyd Richards. Richards also dealt with Robeson’s life and legacy in the 1977 theatrical production Paul Robeson. Lloyd Richards was the recipient of the Pioneer Award of AUDELCO, the Frederick Douglass Award and, in 1993, was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. He also served as President of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.

Richards served as Dean of the Yale School of Drama and as Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre from 1979 to 1991.
Lloyd Richards served as Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre from 1979 to 1991, where he “discovered, taught and nurtured some of the most significant playwrights of his time.” Though he was a writer’s director, Richards avoided a “conspicuous directorial thumbprint on his productions. His mark on the dramatic landscape was tremendous. Lloyd Richards and August Wilson would form one of the most successful artistic partnerships in the history of American theater.” He earned the National Medal of Arts in 1993.

In 1991, Lloyd Richards retired from his posts as Dean of the Yale University School of Drama and as Artistic Director of Yale Rep. He continued to serve as Artistic Director of the Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Center until 1999. He died in 2006, on his 87th birthday.

Lloyd Richards discovered the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.  Wilson discusses his work at the 1988 Academy Summit in Nashville, Tennessee.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1987

“I’ve had to accept the fact: freedom is never won. You are always in the process of winning it. You have to do it again.”

When Lloyd Richards went to New York to become a professional actor, African American actors were largely confined to stereotypical roles as servants or comedians. Black directors and playwrights were virtually unknown.

No single event did more to change that situation than Lloyd Richards’s groundbreaking production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. For the first time, a Broadway audience saw a contemporary African American family portrayed realistically through the eyes of an African American playwright and brought to the stage by an African American director. The play’s leading actors — Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands — became stars of theater and film, and Lloyd Richards became first the dean of African American stage directors and ultimately, the Dean of the Yale University School of Drama.

In 1984 he staged the first production of a play by an unknown playwright, August Wilson. In all, he would direct the world premieres of six of Wilson’s plays. Together, these Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas constitute a moving theatrical panorama of American history. Besides August Wilson, Lloyd Richards nurtured the careers of a host of young playwrights, including Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang, Lee Blessing and David Henry Hwang. Lloyd Richards never confined himself to the work of American playwrights — he directed classics by Shakespeare, Shaw and Chekhov, among others — but one of his greatest contributions was the cultivation of new voices in the theater.

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You’ve had such an extraordinary career, directing the original production of Raisin in the Sun and the first plays of August Wilson. None of these were safe choices at the time. It sounds to me like taking chances, risk, is built into your life and your profession. How important is that?

Keys to success — Courage

Lloyd Richards: It’s built into your life. If you aspire at all, you’re taking a risk. If you aspire as a young black person to something where there is not a beaten path, you’re taking a risk. So risk is nothing new in your life. But then, some risks cost more than others, and I guess those are the ones that you recognize as risks. But all of life is a risk. You try and achieve whatever you as an individual human being can achieve. To make that attempt is a risk. I guess I never decided to take risks with my life, I just had no choice. You take risks, whether they be small ones or whether they be large ones.

A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Lloyd Richards, starring Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett, and Diana Sands.
A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Lloyd Richards, starring Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett, and Diana Sands. The play debuted on Broadway in 1959. The title comes from the poem Harlem by Langston Hughes. The story tells of a black family’s experiences in the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood as they attempt to “better themselves” with an insurance payout following the death of the father. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, as well as the first with a black director, Lloyd Richards. In 1960, it was nominated for four Tony Awards including Best Play.

Was A Raisin in the Sun a risk? Was that taking a chance?

Lloyd Richards: Raisin in the Sun was a big risk. Not necessarily for me; it was for a lot of other people. Of course, I was putting a lot on the line. Raisin in the Sun happened in a strange way. As a struggling actor, you meet many other struggling actors. I do remember Sidney Poitier as an actor you meet making the rounds, when you’re both quite broke. I recall sharing a hot dog with Sidney, because neither one of us could afford to have a whole one by yourself. He had come to study for a while where I was teaching. I was teaching with Paul Mann at his actor’s workshop. I assisted him for quite a while, and then began to teach with him and Sidney came. He said to me one day, “If I ever do a major Broadway show, I want you to direct it.” That’s something said in the middle of the night — which would have been over a beer if you could afford one, but it only was fantasy or an aspect of a dream. And some dreams come true. I remember getting a call from Sidney, which was at a time when Sidney had begun to make it, he was making films. That’s the difference between Sidney and I. Sidney was six feet-something tall — a thin, attractive man. He could play leading roles. I was always a character man and had to accept the fact that my future was in the future, that I would probably get to do some of the roles that I had done in college when I got to be 62 or 70 years old, or whatever. I was short. I wouldn’t say that I was unattractive, no one would say that. I guess I had a certain amount of charm. But there were no roles for young character black people at that time. Sidney had gone ahead and made it, and I was teaching and doing what I could do to stay alive in the theater. That’s what I found. I have to stay alive in it. That’s why I went back to directing, and I did all the other things that I could do, as well as act Off-Broadway.

1959: Lorraine Hansberry, author of the Broadway dramatic hit A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry was the first black woman to have a play presented on Broadway. The 28-year-old playwright said she first had the intention of being a painter, but decided that she just “didn’t have it.” So, Hansberry said, “I just told myself that I was a playwright.”

Lloyd Richards: I did get the call from Sidney. He said he had read a wonderful play, which had been submitted to him that he wanted to do. And he wanted to suggest me to direct it. He sent me a copy of the script, which was A Raisin in the Sun. My wife and I read it that night, and we howled, and we cried; we had a wonderful time reading it. I told him I was interested. He said, “I’ll arrange for you to meet the producer,” which I did, Phil Rose. We hit it off. He arranged for me to meet the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, and that was a wonderful experience, we hit it off. We decided, okay, let’s do it. Well, that was an adventure. It certainly was an adventure, because that was not a good investment for anyone to make. We started out to try and do A Raisin in the Sun. Lorraine and I were rewriting the play, so we met once a week and talked about it, and Lorraine would work on it. I would challenge her to things, and she would top me in what she wrote. It was a wonderful year in that respect. It took that long to work on it. We weren’t working on it simply because we wanted to work on it, we just could not get the money to produce it.

Lloyd Richards: I remember spending hours and hours sitting in the anterooms of the Shubert Organization, trying to get a theater. There were no theaters. Investors did not consider that a play about a black family was something that would return its investment. In the time which began in about November through that whole spring and into the summer, we had been unable to raise the money, or a small portion of the money, and Phil Rose thought he was going to have to give up the show because suddenly there appeared a white producer, another white producer, who was an experienced one, but he wanted to take over the show. Now that meant that our working relationship with Phil, which had been excellent, would be interrupted by somebody else coming in with the most money and taking control. I was conscious of the fact that it jeopardized my possibility as a director. I’m an unknown; who was I to be directing this show? And I recall a moment with Phil, when he was deeply disturbed about his possibly losing the show. And if he did cut me in as a secondary producer, would we still retain our relationship with him? Of course we would do that, we had a wonderful working relationship. If I remained, the relationship would remain. Phil finally turned that producer away — couldn’t accept that. We went on, having backers’ auditions, trying to raise some money. Producing a show like that is like going to the top of a toboggan slide; you can resist up to a certain point, but once you go over that first hump, you’re going to the bottom, one way or another, whether you smash up in a tree or turn over. You are going all the way, once you make that commitment. Well, there were some contracts that had been signed. Sidney had been signed, and had to be paid starting at a certain point. In September, when we were supposed to go into rehearsal, we couldn’t go into rehearsal. Sidney was working on a film. He was supposed to be through, but we got the call that the set had burned down, and they were going to have a delay in the film. So we were going to have to delay. We very quietly rejoiced about that, because it gave more time to raise money, which eventually we did.

1961: A Raisin in the Sun with Diana Sands, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee earned Poitier a Golden Globe nomination.

That show probably had more backers than any show previously produced on Broadway. We ended up a year later, in December, going into rehearsal, just having made enough. We had scheduled four days in New Haven, a week in Philadelphia, and had nothing past that. So the possibility was that we would go into rehearsal, we would open in New Haven, get to Philadelphia, and then have to close, because we had no theater. We didn’t have the money to stay alive. So, we went to rehearsal. Had a wonderful rehearsal, had a great cast, a wonderful group of people. Sidney, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, excellent actors were involved in that play.

Lloyd Richards: We did a lot of work on the play in rehearsal. Cut 45 minutes out, cut one character out, and we went to New Haven. I think the word started to float back to New York that possibly there was something that had some value there. We got to Philadelphia, opened to a little bit more than half a house, and by the fourth day, we were a sell-out. The Shuberts came and saw the show in Philadelphia, and said they did not have a theater for us in New York, but if we would go to Chicago for eight weeks, they would underwrite the show against loss, and they would have a theater for us in New York, the Barrymore.

I was just to the Barrymore, and saw another show there. It was wonderful to walk in the Barrymore, because some of the ushers, or some of the people who worked in the theater who’d been to the Barrymore a few times, they’d come up to you, and they’d say, “Oh, you’re back.” There is a family in the theater, and “How wonderful to have you back.” It was wonderful to be in that theater again, because there is so much history in those theaters. It was an adventure.

Well, in Chicago, for those eight weeks, Lorraine could only be there for opening. She was from Chicago. Her father was a real estate broker in Chicago, and evidently a very good one, a militant one, and he had taken the first restrictive covenant case to the Supreme Court, and won it. So all of the real estate interests in Chicago were against him. It was Lorraine’s sense that actually that pressure had killed him, and she resented those interests for that. And of course, (she) inherited some property when he died. Well, when they found Lorraine was in town, there were all of these warrants that started to appear, and she had to leave town. We did our work on that play over the phone for eight weeks. I would work on the play, it would perform at night, and I would talk to Lorraine, make suggestions. She never saw that work, during that period, until we got back to New York. When we opened in New York, it was quite an exhilarating opening.

1987: August Wilson and Lloyd Richards, working on The Piano Lesson, which premiered at the Yale Repertory.

Can you describe what that felt like, opening in New York?

Lloyd Richards: Oh, I can recall Sidney calling Lorraine and I to the stage at the end of the show. And there was a large ovation. I remember going to Sardi’s afterward, walking into Sardi’s and suddenly hearing applause. I looked around to see who the applause was for. And it was for me. Your peers acknowledging your work. And that was an accolade, a very moving experience.

At that time, did you see A Raisin in the Sun as, one, a significant breakthrough, and two, as this monumental work in the American theater?

Lloyd Richards: No, you don’t look at it that way. It is people later who recall it or make it history. It’s just work. A good play, and you get good people to do it. You do the best you can, and it has nothing to do with making history, it has to do with making the work… work. Creating a piece that works for you, works for me. All of the other things that happen from that are surprises to me. My real fun is in the rehearsal hall. That’s when the creative experience is happening. That’s when I am close to what is going on, stimulating and affecting others to make the work shape up into something that you want it to be, or that you envision for it. History is something else.

Lloyd Richards and August Wilson would form one of the most successful artistic partnerships in American theater, as Mr. Richards directed and collaborated on five other plays by Mr. Wilson — Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars. The two refined and developed them in a long pre-Broadway tryout process at nonprofit theaters around the country, which was a trademark of their creative process. Mr. Richards won the 1987 Tony Award for Best Director for Fences.
Lloyd Richards and August Wilson would form one of the most successful artistic partnerships in American theater, as Mr. Richards directed and collaborated on five other plays by Mr. Wilson — Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars. The two refined and developed the plays in a long pre-Broadway tryout at nonprofit theaters around the country, which was a trademark of their creative process.

Is there a scene, is there something in A Raisin in the Sun, or any of the other plays that you have directed, that is special to you? That stands out for any reason?

Keys to success — Passion

Lloyd Richards: It’s all special. They were all very special experiences, even the ones that didn’t work. It’s like saying which of your children do you love the most? Sometimes you have a special feeling for things that didn’t work. It’s like a child with a deformity, a child that doesn’t quite make it. He is not loved less; he is sometimes even loved more, because you felt you didn’t do enough for him. So, they all stand out. And I don’t try and differentiate between them. People ask me which is my favorite play. Which is your favorite August Wilson play? I have no favorites. They are all my favorites. My work is my favorite.

Will you tell the story about the woman who was waiting in line to buy the ticket?

Lloyd Richards: Well, it really illustrates why I am in the theater, and the kind of thing that keeps you going. It happened when we were doing Raisin in the Sun. We were in Philadelphia. We had opened without anyone really being conscious that we were there. The third day, or the fourth, we began to really have some lines at the box office. I happened to be standing in the lobby, and there was a very small, thin black woman standing in line, and she had a shopping bag. I know what those shopping bags are about. My mother used to carry one. They were the badge of the housekeepers. I used to watch it on Grand River, when I went to school. Grand River (Avenue) was a major artery in Detroit. The buses and streetcars went downtown, and the buses went uptown. In the morning when you approached a corner, you saw the buses going downtown, and they were filled with white persons on their way downtown. On the other side of the street, there was a different group. There was a group of black women, getting on the buses, going out into the suburbs to clean their house or take care of their houses while they went downtown. And it would reverse in the evening. Well, this was obviously one of those women. She got up to the ticket booth, she asked for a ticket, and she put up a dollar. The ticket man told her that will be $4.80. She said, “Four dollars and eighty cents?” Yes. She said, “Why is it $4.80? I can see Sidney Poitier around the corner for 95 cents.” She was obviously referring to the movies. Well, it’s $4.80 here. So she took her $4.80, which I knew was hard earned, she put it out, got her ticket and she started to go into the theater. The door was locked, and she said, “I can’t get in.” The ticket man said, “You have to come back tonight at 8:30. There is only one show in the evening, it’s at 8:30.” So she started to leave, and I stopped her, and I asked her, “Why are you paying $4.80 and coming back tonight to see Sidney Poitier, who you can see around the corner for 95 cents?” And she said, “Well, the word is going around in my neighborhood that there is something going on down here that concerns me, and I had to come find out what it was about.”

Tony Award-winning director Lloyd Richards received the National Medal of Arts for Lifetime Achievement in 1993.
Keys to success — Passion

Lloyd Richards: Now, that’s why I’m in the theater. To take those lives, to reveal them. Not just those lives, any life. And that’s what’s important about theater, or should be. It does reflect the lives of a totality of a community that exists out there, and does speak to the totality of that community. Not all at once, but through its own particularness, which is what Raisin did. Other people were able to find themselves in it. I remember when we first did Fences at Yale Rep. My promotional manager, a wonderful woman, she had come to see a run-through, and she sat with me afterwards. She said, “Do you know, I looked at the play, and I looked at that role that James Earl Jones is playing, and I said, ‘you know, that’s the man down the street. I know him, that’s the man down the street.'” A little further into the play, she said, “No, that’s not the man down the street, that’s my brother.” And a little further, “No, not my brother, that’s my father.” At the end of the play, she said, “I said to myself, no, that’s not my father, that’s me.” And it’s that kind of universality that stems from particularity, that makes a work of value that reaches out beyond itself. Not by trying to reach out beyond itself, but by reaching deeper into itself, to its own truth. And that’s what’s wonderful about theater for me.