Phillip Hayes Dean dies; playwright of ‘Paul Robeson’ was 83


Phillip Hayes Dean, a playwright followed by controversy over his play about Paul Robeson in the 1970s, died April 14 at 83. (Craig Schwartz/AP)
April 19

Phillip Hayes Dean, an African American playwright best known for his biographical portrait of entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, which ignited a strong wave of protest from other black artists and intellectuals before its Broadway premiere in 1978, died April 14 in Los Angeles. He was 83.

He had an aortic aneurysm, his wife, Patricia Dean, said.

Mr. Dean was the author of more than a dozen plays, including “The Sty of the Blind Pig,” which Time magazine pronounced one of the best new plays of 1971, and was hailed as an important new voice in the theater.

His play “Paul Robeson,” about the renowned African American singer and actor of the 1930s and 1940s, was on its way to Broadway with James Earl Jones in the starring role when it encountered unexpected opposition.

The multifaceted Robeson was an all-American football player at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a Columbia Law School graduate before starring on stage and in movies. He had leading roles on Broadway in Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.” With his resounding bass voice, he sang what many aficionados consider the definitive version of “Ol’ Man River” in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical “Show Boat,” first on Broadway and in a 1936 film.

A political activist throughout his life, Robeson began making trips to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. When he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, Robeson refused to discuss whether he was a member of the Communist Party. His career never recovered.

Mr. Dean’s play is mostly an extended monologue for a single actor, accompanied by a pianist. It explores Robeson’s family history, including his father’s early life as a slave.

“My father didn’t just come from North Carolina,” Robeson says in the play. “He escaped from North Carolina.”

Mr. Dean and his producers were concerned that they might encounter opposition from conservative groups claiming that “Paul Robeson” glorified a communist sympathizer. What they did not expect during pre-Broadway tryouts in Louisville, Chicago and Philadelphia was sharp criticism from a formidable cadre of black intellectuals.

A group called the National Ad-Hoc Committee to End the Crimes Against Paul Robeson took out a two-page advertisement in Variety magazine, denouncing the play as “a pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson.” The precise nature of the group’s objections was not spelled out.

The ad was signed by about 50 prominent African Americans, including writers Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, civil rights figures Coretta Scott King and Julian Bond, and political leaders Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young (D).

“People live in direct relation to their heroes,” Angelou told The Washington Post. “We must not allow their diminishing. The way we allow them to be depicted is a measure of our lives.”

In response to the campaign, 33 major figures in the theater, including Edward Albee, Paddy Chayefsky, Lillian Hellman, Betty Comden, Garson Kanin and Richard Rodgers, signed an open letter condemning the group’s attempts to “influence critics and audiences against a play.”

The controversy came to a head in Washington, where “Paul Robeson” was being performed at the National Theatre in December 1977. Mr. Dean strode into a news conference organized by his critics and seized the moment, defending his right to artistic freedom.

“I am as black as anyone in this room,” he said. “I might not have caught the man as you would like to see him. . . . But you have no right to say I am involved in some kind of a conspiracy to distort Paul Robeson.”

The play had a solid three-month run on Broadway in 1978, but the reviews were mixed. Critics raved about Jones’s performance, but many had reservations about the play itself.

“Paul Robeson was a complex giant, and his life can’t be summed up without confronting that complexity,” Jack Kroll wrote in Newsweek. “Dean provides only the barest sketch of his courage, his accomplishment and his prophetic force.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Dean’s play was revived on Broadway in 1988 and 1995, with Avery Brooks in the title role both times. The outcry directed at Mr. Dean during the initial performance had dissipated.

“I was being attacked by well-known and highly respected black people for something that no one could quite pin down,” he told the New York Times in 1988. “Not a line in the play has changed. It is the same now as it was then, but now it is attracting good reviews and large audiences of blacks and whites.”

Phillip Hayes Dean was born Jan. 17, 1931, in Chicago and grew up there and in Pontiac, Mich. (In an interesting coincidence, he was born the same day and year as Jones, the actor who first portrayed Robeson in Mr. Dean’s play.)

Mr. Dean began working in the theater in his youth and, as a teenager, once met Robeson. On Broadway, Mr. Dean had an acting role in “The Wisteria Trees” alongside Helen Hayes in 1955 and, two years later, was the stage manager for an all-black production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

When he turned to playwriting, Mr. Dean drew largely on the African American experience. His first plays were produced in the 1960s, and he won a Drama Desk Award in 1971 for “The Sty of the Blind Pig,” in which a blind street singer becomes the catalyst for a dramatic family confrontation between a mother and a daughter.

He received glowing reviews for his 1973 play “Freeman,” about the conflict between two men who grew up under the same roof, and for “Every Night When the Sun Goes Down” (1976), set in a seedy hotel.

“Mr. Dean is a complex writer who uses the theater partly as a political platform and partly as a sort of poetic laboratory,” New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote in 1976.

Mr. Dean, who briefly taught at the University of Michigan, settled in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Patricia O’Toole Dean of Los Angeles; two daughters from earlier relationships; a brother; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Dean’s plays have been staged by college and repertory theater groups, and “Paul Robeson” is currently being presented in Los Angeles, with actor Keith David in the title role. The production was directed by Mr. Dean.

The protests that surrounded his play in the 1970s have long since fallen silent.

“I never did understand what the attackers were upset about,” he said.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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