A Man for All Stages
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
At one point in "Owen's Song," a musical tribute to the poet Owen Dodson, a young actress climbed a series of steps and then leapt from the highest platform into the arms of several men.
The audience gasped and the chorus broke out tambourines and marched with the winged actress down the aisles. This was a Mike Malone moment, well before wires protected talent, well before Cirque du Soleil made this aerial vision look easy. This was Mike Malone in the early 1970s, testing the limits of theatrical style, grooming the young cast of "Owen's Song" and taking them from Georgia Avenue to the Kennedy Center to New York. All the while he was making sure the work of a black pioneer was remembered.
Malone, the choreographer, director and teacher who died Monday at age 63, was a stalwart of the Washington theater community for nearly 40 years. He believed in building institutions where the arts would be an avenue for creativity for young people, and enjoyment for all. In 1968 he was a founder, along with Peggy Cooper Cafritz, of Workshops for Careers in the Arts. When the DC Black Repertory Company wanted a dance company as part of its professional programs, Malone started the company in 1971.
In 1974 Malone, along with Cafritz, pushed the city for an arts high school. He was the first artistic director at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Over the years he had taught at Howard University and was the coordinator of its musical theater program. His staging of "Black Nativity," a revival of poet Langston Hughes's play, became a holiday standard, and just opened Sunday in Chicago.
"He left a school with a legacy and a purpose to continually fill the ranks of America's artists with highly trained African American artists," said Cafritz, outgoing president of the D.C. Board of Education. "I don't think that goal exists anywhere else in high schools or colleges."
Charles Augins, chairman of the dance department at Ellington and a friend of Malone's for 43 years, emphasized the sweep of Malone's training. Malone had graduated from Georgetown University, studied at the Sorbonne and danced at the Folies Bergère. He was a disciplined free-form dancer.
"He was a modern jazz dancer, and he represented the Gang Gang style, based much more on African movement. But he was ballet-trained and anything he did had 10 arabesques," Augins said.
Monday night Augins was part of a spontaneous "cry-in" for Malone with friends and students at a bar on Capitol Hill. "His legacy is a living legacy of artists who Mike must have touched," he said.
Glenda Dickerson, professor of theater and drama at the University of Michigan, was the co-director of "Owen's Song," and thought Malone's idea of the flying actress was crazy. But she admits now that it was the perfect touch.
"I would say for all his brilliance . . . his most important contribution was he collected a cadre of loyal, extremely devoted artists," she said.
Foremost among those is Debbie Allen, the award-winning actress, dancer and choreographer. She and Malone met at a party at Howard in the 1970s. "I was gyrating," and doing some fancy turns and leg kicks," she recalled yesterday. "He told me I was a dancer. I had stopped dancing altogether after a rejection from the North Carolina School of the Arts."
"He was responsible for me finding my path when I got lost," she said.