Paul Carter Harrison

 Paul Carter Harrison

There is a segment among the elite few within the classification of genius who possess the gift of identifying the genius of others – often recognizing said talents before the gifted see it in themselves.

Among many other things, author, cultural critic, playwright, director, educator, Black theatre scholar and screenwriter Paul Carter Harrison was that type of genius – who are arguably the most interesting of the lot. He passed away on December 27, 2021, at the age of 85.

“We cannot express more, the utmost respect and affection he had from many people in the U.S. and across the oceans, as a writer, award-winning director, teacher, colleague and friend,” The Harrison family said in a statement. “For the family he was the Pater Familia.”

His stage, film and literary credentials speak for themselves. But Harrison is also specifically known for pointing to a Pittsburgh playwright as having the capacity to create a paradigm shift in writing for the stage from a Black perspective. That playwright’s name was August Wilson.

Harrison carefully unpacked Wilson’s work. In doing so, he provided a level of context that stretched far beyond the depth of those who possess only a casual acquaintance with Black culture.

Through his critiques, one of the many themes Harrison explored was Wilson’s intention to highlight the poetic geniuses that float with anonymity through Black America. In vernacular written off by many as artistically inferior and culturally unsophisticated, Wilson showed everyday characters navigating through life who could spin a phrase with the power to turn someone’s world upside down. Often, they did so in the midst of struggles that would easily break people of a lesser will. Harrison caught on quickly to what Wilson was doing – and made it his mission to document the phenomenon of Wilson’s work as it was happening. Harrison was revered as the pinnacle among August Wilson subject matter experts.

 “More so than any other theater scholar or critic in the mid-1980s – and I would argue, beyond – Paul knew intimately what was in August’s toolbox,” said Sandra G. Shannon, President of the August Wilson Society, in a written tribute.

Harrison’s knowledge of the genius he was witnessing in Wilson came from the nearly quarter-century of engagement with the dramatic arts prior to the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s arrival to the scene.

A mind as bright as Harrison’s would have probably otherwise been devoted to medicine or some other field within the sciences. However, being a son of The Great Migration gave him a cultural advantage. He was born in New York City on March 1, 1936, to Thelma Inez and Paul Randolph Harrison, who moved there from North Carolina and South Carolina.

As a teen he mingled with groundbreaking artists, writers and musicians like Amiri Baraka, Thelonious Monk and Ted Joans. His proximity also gave him the type of access to theater that few cities on earth could provide.

“As a youngster, fortunately a Black man in New York, I had available to me all kinds of different works to look at,” Harrison said in an interview with Talvin Wilks for “Artist and Influence.” “I had seen the Tennessee Williams works – all those plays that I was told were very important experiences.”

He found them interesting, but not necessarily compelling.

“Yet, I would go to a black church and was completely turned out by the experience – and it was doing the same thing,” Harrison said. “It had text. It had music. It had movement. The text was quite elaborate – and when I say elaborate, I mean it was poetic.”

He envisioned theater more like his engagement with the Black church than what he was seeing on “The Great White Way” and set about bringing the concept to the secular stage.

After earning a degree in psychology from Indiana University and a master’s degree from New York City’s New School for Social Research, he left for Europe to write and direct for the theater.

Upon his return in 1968, Harrison taught theater at Howard University. Among his students were Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Linda Gross, Pearl Cleage and Clinton Turner Davis.

He moved on to California State University, Sacramento, where he conceived and directed the famed Melvin Van Peebles play “Ain’t Supposed To Die a Natural Death.” His play “The Great MacDaddy,” which was produced by the legendary Negro Ensemble Company, earned an Obie Award in 1973.

After teaching at University of Massachusetts Amherst for four years, Harrison joined Columbia College Chicago in 1976. He served as Chair, Professor, and Writer in Residence at the Theatre Department until his retirement in 2002. Along with directing credits that span decades, Harrison is author of several books and countless essays. His writings, critiques and observations serve as the standard for scholarship within the Black theatre community and beyond.

In 2004, while being interviewed for “The History Makers,” Harrison was asked how he would like to be remembered.

“[I would like to be remembered as] A forward, very progressive forward-thinking, forward-moving dramatist/director who has always been committed to the illumination of the African American experience – African American experience in ways that can be useful, and not simply grounded in either sociology or journalism,” Harrison responded. “In other words, to open up the gaze on the experience as one that is more, more vital, more, more richer – that has finding a mechanism to, to reveal what this experience has been, and what it meant to us being Americans, being Africans in this American space.”

Spoken like a true genius.

Paul Carter Harrison is survived by his wife Wanda Harrison, daughter Fonteyn Harrison and grandson Nigel Plattel.

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