Director and Teacher Mike Malone; Nurtured D.C. Black Theater Scene

Mike Malone works with
Mike Malone works with "Black Nativity" cast member Robin Massengale at the Kennedy Center in 1994. (By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Mike Malone, 63, an enduring, energizing presence in Washington's black theater community since the late 1960s who sparked a holiday tradition with his staging of Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity: A Gospel Song Play," died Dec. 4 at his home in Washington. The D.C. medical examiner's office said the cause of death was pending.

Mr. Malone, a choreographer, director and teacher, inspired a generation of performers and brought positive portrayals of black life to audiences throughout the country and abroad. He helped usher in the black theater movement in Washington in 1968 and create institutions that trained young people in dance, drama and the visual arts.

As professor of musical theater in Howard University's Department of Theatre Arts, Mr. Malone groomed scores of students, some of whom went on to professional careers, such as Debbie Allen, Lynne Whitfield and Anthony Anderson.

He also was co-founder, with Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and first artistic director of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which started in 1974 and grew out of the Workshop for Careers in the Arts that Mr. Malone and Cafritz started in 1968.

Joseph Selmon, chairman of Howard's theater department, said Mr. Malone nurtured countless students who are now working in musical theater, the recording industry and other theatrical areas, such as costuming.

"All felt that their work with Mike was foundational and life-changing in the way that he inspired them in their careers," Selmon said.

An artist in his own right, Mr. Malone brought a high-energy, athletic pace to his work, which reflected the influences of choreographers Alvin Ailey and Louis Johnson and directors Glenda Dickerson and Hal Prince.

He created a holiday tradition when he revived Hughes's "Black Nativity" in 1979 while serving as director of Cleveland's Karamu House, one of the oldest black theaters in the country.

Out of boredom one day, he was looking through file cabinets at the theater, where some of Hughes's early works were stored. "I dug up several scripts of his," Mr. Malone told The Washington Post in 1994. " 'Nativity' was one I found, and I decided the first chance I had to do it, I would do it."

Since 1979, "Black Nativity," which Hughes first produced on Broadway in 1961, has been performed in theaters across the country and in Paris. Mr. Malone first staged it in Washington at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in 1994, and he was directing his third season of the play at Chicago's Congo Square Theatre at the time of his death.

The play, a rousing, colorful rendition of the birth of Christ, became Mr. Malone's signature piece.

"It is the only one of the traditional Christmas pieces that speaks to the beginning of Christmas, the birth of Christ," Mr. Malone said in 1994. "And I like it because it is so appealing to a black audience because of the gospel music, because of the vernacular, because of the performance."

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