Arthur French, Negro Ensemble Company Pioneer, dies at 89

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Arthur French, a prolific and acclaimed (if relatively unspoken) 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, the playwright Arthur W. French III. a post on facebook.

Mr. French more or less stumbled upon his theatrical career. After abandoning his early plans to become a preacher, he aspired to become a disc jockey, but when he arrived at the DJ school he hoped to attend, he found it closed after bribery investigations into the late-stage radio payola scandal began. 1950s.

Fortunately, the Dramatic Workshop where Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler taught was in the same building, and Mr. French signed up for the classes. It was coached by actress Peggy Feury; It caught the attention of Maxwell Glanville’s American Negro Theatre; and his career as a supporting actor was born.

Mr. French made his Broadway professional debut in 1962 at the Provincetown Playhouse in “Raisin’ Hell in the Son,” a parody of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Three years later, she starred in Douglas Turner Ward’s “Day.” Absence” gave birth to the Negro Ensemble Company. He made his Broadway debut in Melvin Van Peebles’ musical “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” in 1971.

“That’s when I decided to quit my Social Work job,” she told Art magazine in a recent interview. Gallery & Studio. She worked for days as a clerk in New York City’s welfare department.

He appeared in Broadway animations such as “The Iceman Cometh” (1973), “Death of a Salesman” (1975) and “You Can’t Take It With You” (1983). His credits included Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992) and “Crooklyn” (1994). Among his many television shows were three episodes of “Law & Order”, two episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and an episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”.

Critics have often noted her sonorous voice and the courtesy of her performances; His reporting in The New York Times was consistently positive. Reviewing the portrayal of Bynum as a “wizard” in the 1996 re-enactment of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in the Henry Street Settlement, Vincent Canby is a variation on the idiot scholar who “sees” him and sometimes returns. ” he described. There is regularity in Mr. Wilson’s work, but never quite as fully as the character is here.”

When Mr. French was seen in “Checkmates” at the same theater that year, Lawrence Van Gelder said, “Real feasts, Ruby Dee and Arthur French as the Coopers, talented ex-professionals who tickle the funny bone and touch the heart.”

He also occasionally directed the 2010 production of Steve Carter’s 1990 play “Pecong,” a retelling of the Medea story set in the Caribbean, at the Off Off Broadway National Black Theatre.

Mr. French taught at HB Studio in New York. She received the Obie Award for continued excellence in performance in 1997 and the Lucille Lortel Award in 2007 for her supporting role in August Wilson’s “Running Two Trains.” In 2015, the Paul Robeson Citation from the Actors’ Equity Association and the Actor’s Equity Foundation for “devotion to freedom of expression and respect for human dignity”.

Arthur Wellesley French Jr. was born on November 6, 1931, in Harlem, the child of immigrants from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean. His father, a former sailor, died young; Arthur himself survived an asthmatic attack. His mother, Ursilla Idonia (Ollivierre) French, was a garment workers union organizer, and Arthur helped earn some extra money by embroidering material he took home.

His mother encouraged him to take music lessons, which led to a piano recital at Carnegie Hall. He attended Morris High School in the Bronx before moving on to Bronx Science High School; After graduating, he attended Brooklyn College.

He married singer Antoinette Williams in 1961. He died before that. In addition to his sons, 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 during his 50-year career.

“I love the fantasy world,” she replied. “And my father said to me, ‘Learn something so well that you won’t have to lift anything heavier than a pencil.’”

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