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Arts Administrator, Playwright Vantile Whitfield Dies

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page C11

Vantile Whitfield, known as "Motojicho," an influential playwright, director of stage and screen and founding director of the Expansion Arts program at the National Endowment of the Arts, died Jan. 9 at the Washington Home of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 74 and was considered a dean of black theater.

Mr. Whitfield, a native Washingtonian, was a pioneer in theater arts and television in the 1960s and 1970s when Hollywood was less receptive to African Americans. In the 1970s, he was a founding director, with actor Robert Hooks, of the D.C. Black Repertory Company.

Vantile Whitfield was director of a National Endowment of the Arts program as well as a playwright, set designer and director. (Family Photo)

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Perhaps Mr. Whitfield's most significant contributions to the arts resulted from his role as teacher and mentor and his work as an arts administrator. He started community theater organizations in several cities. Throughout his professional career, he devoted considerable energy to inspiring and developing the talents of colleagues and younger black and minority artists, many of whom are working successfully in the industry today.

He exuded, one critic said, "the pith of the African-American challenge: the struggle for identity, for name and history, the torture of repression, the soul of rhythm and blues, the anger of response, the exultation and celebration of life -- however hapless."

As founding director of the Expansion Arts program in 1971, Mr. Whitfield became a central figure in a new movement to expand the reach of the arts. He was appointed by then-NEA Chairman Nancy Hanks to fund the works of community-based arts organizations.

During Mr. Whitfield's seven-year tenure at the NEA, he was responsible for making more than $47 million in grants available to artists and arts organizations within the Appalachian, American Indian, Latino and black communities. He came to be recognized as the father of the Expansion Arts movement.

Mr. Whitfield also received critical acclaim for his work as a writer, director and set designer. In 1963, he designed the sets, lights and costumes for James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," becoming the one of first black production designers to work on Broadway.

He thrived in the black theater heyday of the 1970s. His successful theatrical works have included the productions "Changes," "East of Jordan" and "Don't Leave Go My Hand." He was especially proud of "Changes," which he wrote and directed and which debuted in 1973 to standing-room-only audiences in Washington. It was considered the most successful of the D.C. Black Rep's musical productions.

In the late 1970s, the Black Rep and other black-run theater groups across the country began to founder financially, and many were without homes of their own. Years later, Mr. Whitfield lamented the trend: "Black folks want something concrete. . . . If not, to them it is just your dream."

Vantile Emmanuel Whitfield was born Sept. 8, 1930, and was greatly influenced by his mother to succeed. He attended Dunbar High School, where he became interested in painting and played football, and graduated in 1948. He served in the Air Force until 1952.

From 1953 until 1960, including his years in college, Mr. Whitfield worked as a licensed cosmetologist in his mother's beauty shop. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in theater and design from Howard University in 1957 and a master's degree in film production from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1967. In the years between colleges, he started community theaters.

In 1963, Mr. Whitfield co-founded the American Theatre of Being in Los Angeles with actor Frank Silvera. Mr. Whitfield taught classes with such actors as Bea Richards, Isabel Sanford (best known as Louise Jefferson on TV's "The Jeffersons") and Whitman Mayo (Grady of "Sanford and Son"). In 1964, he founded the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles.

Mr. Whitfield started his television career in Los Angeles after several unsuccessful years seeking work in film. For a while, he was a juvenile detention probation counselor.

His first major job in television was a fortuitous assignment to assemble and direct a team of black reporters and cameramen to cover the Watts riots in 1967 and 1968, because white reporters were not allowed in that area of the city. Later, he conceived, produced and co-hosted "From the Inside Out," daily half-hour segments reflecting community news and views for KTTV/Multimedia Productions. He also produced "Anatomy of Change," a one-hour special for a CBS affiliate that was nominated for a local Emmy. In 1971, Mr. Whitfield directed and produced one of the first Bill Cosby specials for NBC.

Mr. Whitfield also produced D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's first and second Mayor's Arts Awards programs. He continued to direct plays and teach students at ETA Theatre in Chicago until the early 1990s.

Mr. Whitfield received numerous awards, including the NAACP Image Award in 1969, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award in 1970 and an ETA Creative Arts Foundation citation in 1992 recognizing him as one of the "Epic Men of the 20th Century." He also received a JEFF citation in Chicago for his original adaptation of the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks in "Among All This You Stand Like a Brownstone," and an AUDELCO Pioneer Award in New York City in 1996.

He was a member of Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington.

His marriages to Barbara Cobb, Barbara Grant Thomas and Lynn Whitfield, the actress and a former student, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 11 years, Loretta Collins Argrett of Silver Spring; a daughter from his first marriage, Elizabeth Whitfield of Washington; a son from the second marriage, Lance Whitfield of Snellville, Ga.; a daughter from another relationship, Bellina Logan of Los Angeles; two stepchildren, Lisa Argrett Ahmad of Larchmont, N.Y., and Brian Argrett of Los Angeles; a half sister; and seven grandchildren.

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