Arthur French, Negro Ensemble Company Pioneer, Dies at 89
Arthur French, a prolific and acclaimed (although relatively unknown) actor who was a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company, died July 24 in Manhattan. He was 89 years old.
His death, in a hospital, was announced by his son, playwright Arthur W. French III, in a post on Facebook.
Mr. French has more or less stumbled in his theatrical career. After abandoning his early preaching projects, he aspired to become a disc jockey, but when he showed up to the DJ school he hoped to attend, he found out that it had closed after the start. investigations into the corruption in the payola radio scandal of the late 1950s.
Fortunately, the drama studio, where Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler taught, was located in the same building, and Mr. French signed up for the classes. He was coached by actress Peggy Feury; it caught the attention of Maxwell Glanville’s American Negro Theater; and his career as a supporting actor was born.
Mr. French made his professional Off Broadway debut in “Raisin ‘Hell in the Son”, a parody of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1962. Three years later he appeared in ” Day “by Douglas Turner Ward. of Absence ”, which gave birth to the Negro Ensemble Company. He first appeared on Broadway in the musical “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” by Melvin Van Peebles in 1971.
“That’s when I decided to quit my job in social services,” he said in a recent interview with art magazine Gallery & Studio. He had worked for days as a clerk in the New York City social service.
He appeared in the Broadway covers of “The Iceman Cometh” (1973), “Death of a Salesman” (1975) and “You Can’t Take It With You” (1983). His films included Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992) and “Crooklyn” (1994). Among his many television appearances were three episodes of “Law & Order”, two of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and one of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”.
Critics have often drawn attention to her sonorous voice and the civility of her performances; his reviews in the New York Times were always positive. Reviewing his portrayal of Bynum, a “man of conspiracy,” in a 1996 cover of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Henry Street Settlement, Vincent Canby called it a “variation on the seer,” sometimes the learned idiot, who runs steadily in Mr. Wilson’s work but never as fully realized as the character is here.
When Mr. French was seen in “Checkmates” in the same theater that year, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote: “The real goodies are Ruby Dee and Arthur French as the Coopers, gifted old pros who tickle the funny bones and touch the heart. “
He has also occasionally directed, most recently a 2010 production of Steve Carter’s 1990 play, “Pecong,” a retelling of Medean history set in the Caribbean, at the Off Off Broadway National Black Theater.
Mr. French has taught at HB Studio in New York. He received an Obie Award for Sustained Performance Excellence in 1997 and a Lucille Lortel Award for his supporting role in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” in 2007. In 2015, he received a Paul Robeson Citation from the Actors’ Equity Association and the Actor’s Equity Foundation for its “dedication to freedom of expression and respect for human dignity”.
Arthur Wellesley French Jr. was born on November 6, 1931 in Harlem to immigrants from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean. His father, a former sailor, died young; Arthur himself has survived an asthma attack. Her mother, Ursilla Idonia (Ollivierre) French, was a garment workers’ union organizer, and Arthur helped her earn extra money by embroidering material that she took home.
His mother encouraged him to take music lessons, which led him to a piano recital at Carnegie Hall. He attended Morris High School in the Bronx before transferring to the Bronx High School of Science; after graduating, he attended Brooklyn College.
In 1961, he married singer Antoinette Williams. She died before him. In addition to their son, he is survived by a daughter, Antonia Willow French, and two grandchildren.
In the Gallery & Studio interview, Mr. French was asked what he had learned about himself in his 50-year career.
“I love the fantasy world,” he replied. “And my dad said to me, ‘Learn something so well that you don’t have to lift something heavier than a pencil.'”
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