Wilson’s top helmer dies

Richards directed 'Fences,' 'Raisin in the Sun'

Lloyd Richards, the first African-American to direct a Broadway production, died of heart failure Thursday, his 87th birthday, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

Richards was a leader in American regional theater and the mentor who guided playwright August Wilson from obscurity to two Pulitzer Prizes. He won a Tony in 1987 for directing Wilson’s “Fences.”

Richards was working as a waiter in 1959 when his helming breakthrough came on Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” Broadway’s first play by an African-American woman. The cast of the celebrated production included Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, Glynn Turman, Lonne Elder III, Louis Gossett, Ed Hall, Claudia McNeill and Douglas Turner Ward.

Richards’ years of greatest influence were from the late ’70s to the 1990s, when he was simultaneously director of the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. (a position he held from 1968-91, when he retired at age 80), dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. He held the latter two positions from 1979-91.

The trifecta of roles helped facilitate the career of Wilson when he first appeared at the O’Neill in 1982 with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which was further developed at Yale Rep. That work set the stage for the process and unique production of Wilson’s 10-play cycle, chronicling decade by decade the African-American experience in the 20th century.

Richards, along with his managing director Benjamin Mordecai, created a producing template that would take Wilson’s plays from regional theaters to the Rialto while nurturing the developmental process of the playwright. Plays would travel from regional theater to regional theater, where the works would be further honed as financing was gathered by Mordecai to bring the production into Gotham. Burned by his experience with commercial producers in the past, Richards made it a goal to bring in Wilson’s works with producing autonomy.

Mordecai died in May 2005, just days after the world preem at the Rep of “Radio Golf,” the final work of Wilson’s 10-play cycle. Wilson died Oct. 2.

While at Yale, Richards also championed the works of writers such as Lee Blessing (“A Walk in the Woods” preemed there) and South African playwright Athol Fugard. Yale produced the American premiere of Fugard’s “A Lesson From Aloes” and the world preems of ” ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys,” “The Road to Mecca” and “A Place With the Pigs.”

But it was with Wilson that Richards made his greatest mark.

At Yale, Richards directed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Two Trains Running,” all of which eventually went to Broadway. Richards’ final Wilson work was 1996’s “Seven Guitars,” when the helmer was 76.

Richards’ other Broadway credits included helming James Earl Jones in “Paul Robeson,” and several early-career failures, among them “The Long Dream” and “The Moon Besieged.” Richards also helmed two musical flops: “I Had a Ball,” starring Buddy Hackett, and “The Yearling.” Off Broadway, Richards directed James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner.”

Born in Toronto and raised in Detroit, Richards began his career as an actor. He performed on Broadway in 1950’s “A Phoenix Too Frequent/Freight” and 1957’s “The Egghead.”

A longtime leader in the regional theater movement, Richards was president of Theater Communications Group, the service organization for not-for-profit theaters, from 1984 to 1988. He also was president in the 1970s of the Society for Stage Directors & Choreographers.

Richards is survived by his wife, two sons and two grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private; a memorial service will be held at a date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Doctors Without Borders.

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