Thursday, April 23, 2020


Dick Anthony Williams, Linda Miller, Albert Hall, Carol Cole, Paul-David Richards.
 "In Lieu of Reviews"


For background on how this previously unpublished series—introducing all mainstream New York shows between 1970 and 1975—came to be and its relationship to my three The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage volumes (covering every New York play, musical, revue, and revival between 1920 and 1950), please check the prefaces to any of the earlier entries beginning with the letter “A.” See the list at the end of the current entry.

Linda Miller, Dick Anthony Williams.
BLACK PICTURE SHOW [Drama/Drugs/Family/Film/s/Marriage/Mental Illness/Race] A/D: Bill Gunn; S: Peter Harvey; C: Judy Dearing; L: Roger Morgan; M: Sam Waymon; P: New York Shakespeare Festival Lincoln Center; T: Vivian Beaumont Theatre; 1/6/75-2/9/75 (41).

A complex and multilayered exploration of the role of the serious black artist in a culture dominated by white commercial interests. Black Picture Show, directed by its author, Bill Gunn, provided an exciting theatrical occasion for many but was sorely deficient for just as many others.

It begins in a Bronx psychiatric ward where its straitjacketed hero, a once respected black poet, dramatist, and screenwriter named Alexander (Dick Anthony Williams) is on the verge of death. (Some critics suspected he was already dead.) Through expressionistically fragmentary scenes, the writer’s life is brought into focus as presented by his film director son, J.D. (Albert Hall).

A six-piece jazz combo led by composer Sam Waymon, situated upstage, backed the action with musical counterpoint as the scenes transpired, most of them set in the expensive duplex where Alexander, his son, and his second wife, Rita (Carol Cole), reside. The central action concerns the guilt and pain endured by the writer for what he believes is his self-prostitution to the white money men who pay for him to create black exploitation material while ignoring him as a serious artists. His son's “counter-revolutionary” indifference to where the money comes from and his drunken wife’s degradingly mercenary persuasion contribute to his ultimate insanity.

Important to the total picture is the corrupting presence, in a major scene, of a sleazy white producer (Paul-David Richards) and his corrupt and coke-snorting wife, Jane (Linda Miller). At the play’s enigmatic conclusion, both Alexander and J.D. are wearing straitjackets.

The theme of the artist selling his soul for filthy lucre was an old one, despite its being seen here in the guise of whites exploiting blacks. Several critics expressed distaste for its worn-out and specious reasoning.

Gunn’s “dialogue sparkles and sizzles across the stage,” wrote Clive Barnes, who thought the play’s thematic banalities were livened considerably by some “brilliant writing.” Self-conscious literary methods, however, intruded too frequently. To John Simon, the “pretentious” features included “Strindbergian expressionism, scramblings of time and place, an onstage band playing irrelevant music . . . , and periodic lapses into spoken verse. . . .” Nevertheless, Martin Gottfried passed lightly over its flaws and hailed the drama as “a tremendous work of theatre . . . , engrossing and fantastical and finally devastating.”

Several reviewers thought Gunn’s direction might have cleared up some of the weaknesses had it not been his own play but many considered the production outstanding and the performances superlative.

Linda Miller received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play.

Previous entries:

Abelard and Heloise
Absurd Person Singular
“Acrobats” and “Line”
The Advertisement/
All My Sons
All Over
All Over Town
All the Girls Came Out to Play
Alpha Beta
L’Amante Anglais         
American Gothics
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little       
And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers
And Whose Little Boy Are You?
Anna K.
Anne of Green Gables
Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead
As You Like It
The Au Pair Man

Baba Goya [Nourish the Beast]
The Ballad of Johnny Pot
Barbary Shore
The Bar that Never Closes
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel
The Beauty Part
The Beggar’s Opera
Behold! Cometh the Vanderkellens
Be Kind to People Week
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill
Bette Midler’s Clams on a Half-Shell Revue
Black Girl
Black Light Theatre of Prague