Linda Alton Randall Kennedy, a staple of the St. Louis theater scene for more than four decades, passed away this morning (Friday, August 16) after a battle with cancer.
Her son Terell Randall Sr. confirmed her passing via Facebook. She was 68.
“With a heavy heart, I am sorry to have to say that my mother Linda Kennedy now has her wings,” Randall said.
She was perhaps best known as an actress but contributed to the St. Louis theater scene in nearly every capacity – including director, consultant, coach, stage manager and even costume designer.
She was born Linda Alton on December 5, 1950, the only child of William and Lucille Alton. A proud product of Richmond Heights and the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School System, acting was her creative outlet. It would eventually become her life’s work.
Kennedy was an early company member of The St. Louis Black Repertory Company, where she graduated from the touring company troupe to the mainstage – and embodied some of the most iconic characters in the lexicon of black theater.
“Her first season with the Black Rep was in 1981 and I honestly don’t know where the company would have been or what we would have achieved without her,” said Ron Himes, The Black Rep’s Founder and Producing Director. “She was my right hand, my left hand….my everything. She was the heart and soul of The Black Rep.”
She worked for The Black Rep on stage and in array of administrative and artistic capacities.
"She was phenomenal in everything she did. She was perhaps the greatest Black Rep Ambassador and the greatest Black Rep Artistic Associate," Himes said. "She was everything. For me it has been an honor and a privilege to have known her as an artist and as a person."
Himes and Kennedy played opposite each other on stage nearly a dozen times, most recently in the company’s 2018 production of August Wilson’s “Fences.”
There is a generation of young artists in town who Linda trained with her as she administered the organization's summer camps. Two generations of audiences saw her portray Rose Maxon – the role that earned Viola Davis a Tony and an Academy Award for the film adaptation.
“Looking at this woman – looking at this black woman in St. Louis making a career in the arts let me know that I can do it,” Jacqueline Thompson said in her speech as she accepted her Emerging Artist honors at the 2019 St. Louis Visionary Awards.
Kennedy was Esther, the 30 year old spinster in The Black Rep presentation of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.” She also played sassy senior citizen Fonsia Dorsey in St. Louis Actor’s Studio production of Donald L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game.”
“I’m just so grateful to be embraced, loved and supported within the St. Louis theater community,” Kennedy told the American ahead of her starring role in the one-woman show “Chef” for Upstream Theater back in 2018. “Embraced and supported enough that I’ve been able to make a living, and a life, doing what I love and I’m passionate about. Not many artists, in St. Louis or anyplace else, can say that.”
Very few people knew it, but she was suffering with cancer as she met the physical and emotional demands of her performance in “Chef.”
“She was in tremendous pain,” Himes said. “It was just amazing that she could make it through that one-woman show every night for two to three weeks.”
She was tiny, both in height and stature. But the largest stages were barely big enough to hold her presence once she stepped on and got about the business of bringing a character to life. Kennedy was fearless when it came to her art. Whatever the role required – a song, a dance, a joke – she would become the de facto singer, dancer or comedian.
“She was a master of her craft and an inspiration to all those blessed to witness her amazing work,” said actress, singer and writer Roz White via Facebook.
Kennedy managed to be the definitive leading lady and a walking defiance of the stage diva stereotype at the same time. She spent as much time pouring into others as she did showcasing her own talent. On stage, she had a way of making sure her co-stars were along with her for every dramatic exchange. Behind the scenes, her motherly love an instinct was applied to fellow artists.
“Before I would go on stage, she would check my elbows and put lotion on them,” actress, singer, theater producer and educator Lisa Harris Hampton said.
She had a strut that would let anyone who saw her walking by that she was a performer of some sort -and a laugh that made anyone who heard it chime in.
She had a huge heart and made inspiring those who came behind her to have the audacity to discover, master and share their creative talents within the arena of theater her ministry.
“She was a true representative of the arts,” said playwright and director Mariah Richardson via Facebook. “And a mentor to many of us.”
She is survived by her mother Lucille Alton, son Terell Randall Sr. and two grandchildren.
"She was a tremendously generous spirit," Himes said. "We shall continue to memorialize and hold her legacy up. The commitment here is that nobody will come to The Black Rep or work for The Black Rep and not know who Linda Kennedy was. ”