Writer/actor/director/teacher L. Kenneth Richardson died on May 24. He was 69.
Lee Kenneth Richardson has been called back.
I am sure that in the coming days, folks will write about this wonderful human of the American theatre, and the large body of work he created through his direction, and how that art contributed towards the canon of Black theatre that is a pillar of the American experience. Among his many achievements, Lee was the director of the original production of George C. Wolfe’s groundbreaking play The Colored Museum, which premiered at New York’s Public Theater. For the last 12 years, he was an associate professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. And he was co-founder of Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey, the recipient of the 1999 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
Lee was a wonderful artist. And probably because of that, a truly complicated individual. I found him charming. He was one of those veterans who could be intensely serious and then funny on a dime in the rehearsal room. He was tall, handsome, with a booming voice. He had long legs, and when he sat at his chair in his office, he sat so low that one could imagine him in his sixth-grade pose. Coursing through his veins was a creative juice that made him crazy and made him do work.
I knew Lee during my years at the Mark Taper Forum Theatre in Los Angeles, in the 1990s, when he founded the Blacksmyths Playwright Lab. He was a colleague and ally during my time, with Diane Rodriguez, running the Latino Theatre Initiative. Alongside Chay Yew and the Asian Theatre Workshop, and Vicki Lewis and the Other Voices Lab, which created work by and for artists with disabilities, we joined directors Lisa Peterson and Timothy Douglas as part of the Taper’s artistic staff to create and invest in a more diverse body of art and artists for the theatre. Doesn’t that sound like something we need today? It was a time of great creativity, art-making and producing.
During that time in L.A., Kenneth directed a number of really interesting pieces I remember. One was Heiner Müller’s The Task, which he cast entirely with Black actors; a beautiful play by Silas Jones, American Medea; and a production of Genet’s The Blacks that was done at the Evidence Room, among a lot of work that he did in those productive years.
So here’s my complicated story about Lee. As part of our work at the Taper, we put on this exciting and encompassing festival for years called the Taper’s New Work Festival at our Taper Too space, which was a cool black box with 100 seats underneath the John Anson Ford Theatre in Hollywood. At the start of the year, the artistic staff would gather and begin the reading process of about 700 plays. Each play was read multiple times, and toward the end of the process, we would get down to about 100 of those plays and pass them around so that everyone knew the pieces intimately enough to talk about them in our dramaturgy meetings.
Oh my goodness—those meetings were both a spiritual oasis in the life of the theatre and a ride into Crazy Town. I mean, we all basically grew up in those meetings. We learned how to read plays, how to talk about them, and how to properly advocate for work that wasn’t in the mainstream. People were passionate about the work they advocated for, and when someone fell in love with a play, they practically wept when they talked about it. The conversation was rich, complex, full of opinion, and often divided. At its core it was also the building of community, and artists wrestling with aesthetics. The folks in that room are artists I am still working with today.
One day Lee and someone else in the artistic team (I will be diplomatic and not name names) got into a heated discussion about a play we were considering. We were upstairs in the second-floor conference room where we had our NWF Literary meetings. Both were passionately disagreeing about almost everything they saw in this work. It was like watching a verbal ping-pong match go back and forth across the table. Suddenly, things went too far and got out of hand—for a literary meeting, at least. Their voices rose. They stood. They slammed the play on the table. They argued, and finally they were so mad they challenged each other to go outside and “punch it out”! It was ridiculous.
We ended the meeting early and in disarray. Both Lee and this other guy were arguing their way down the stairs, while they were rolling up their sleeves to come to blows. We were all following them, like chicks in a line, and when we finally get downstairs, they start butting chests on each other, like two old lions trying to out roar the other. I really thought they were going to fight.
I should say that when I heard about Lee’s passing today, the first person that I wanted to call was Diane Rodriguez. As you may know, Diane was called back herself just a few weeks ago; it has been a season of great leaving. I have a lump in my throat just thinking about that, because it was Diane who finally stepped in between these two. I remember it so clearly, because she was holding a stack of plays she had to put down on the floor in the hallway, and then she slipped in between the guys. She put her hands out like a referee in a boxing match and said, “Guys. Guys! Come on, you are being ridiculous. We are talking about a play!”
She pushed them away from each other. The other person stormed out, kicking the side door at the Music Center Annex on Temple Street as he went outside to get some air. Lee stood his ground and said to Diane, “It isn’t just a play. It’s going to be an important work of art.”
I always remember this moment, because as we were dispersing, our artistic director, Gordon Davidson, walked in, holding a stack of his infamous while-you-were-out pink paper phone messages. He looked at us and said, “What happened?” Diane told him that two people were about to punch each other over a play. Gordon looked at her with total seriousness, waited, then shrugged his shoulders, as if to say he understood. “Well, it’s art,” he said, and off he went upstairs to his office.
Later Diane and I went to Lee’s office to make sure he was okay. As I said, he could spin on a dime, and sure enough, he was laughing about the whole thing. As we were getting ready to leave his office, he grabed my hand and held it, while he said, in such deliberation, “It’s not the play. The play is fine—maybe what he is faulting in it is correct. It’s what is being said in the play. About us, about our people, it is…crucial. The play is probably a mess, but it is speaking truth. He was dismissing the power of what was being spoken about in the play, and that is not okay. He was dismissing us.”
It was a small but powerful lesson, and I have taken it into many a selection process or dramaturgical meeting—to remind myself that sometimes what makes theatre so extraordinary is not what we do with it, but the simple, profound story inside a play. Sometimes we try to decorate it when we just need to let it speak in its simplicity. It’s a lesson in the way we create space for community to have its voice.
This is something I believe Lee did with his lab. It was a crazy time, and there was always too much going on. But I see now that part of that “too much” was our urgent need to give voice to our own communities. Those meetings were not just a passionate plea to produce plays, but a heartfelt marriage, a collaboration, an effort to bring light to work that wasn’t yet in our vocabulary.
Lee’s passion was full.
Rest in peace, Lee Kenneth Richardson.
Luis Alfaro is associate professor of dramatic writing in University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!