"When I accepted coming here for Dr. Bethune," said actress Beah Richards, here to participate in a ceremony honoring black educator Mary McLeod Bethune's 107th birthday, "I stumbled on the inspiration of my childhood.
"I remembered what a hope she was to a child in Vicksburg, Miss., who couldn't take a book out of the public library, who couldn't get on a bus without having to do a self-conscious dance to the back, who couldn't use a public latrine, or take a drink of water. This woman represents a kind of love that seems to be becoming extinct--everyone talks about love, but does it build schools? Does it sit in front of the president and say, 'You've got to do better?' "
Richards is a small, fiery woman with a clearly histrionic bent. The theater is her home, although she has done films as well, earning an Academy Award nomination for her role as Sidney Poitier's mother in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" She was in "Roots II: The Second Generation," and along with a sizable list of other theater, film and television credits, wrote "One Is a Crowd," a play produced in Los Angeles in 1971 that received excellent reviews. It included, naturally enough, a fine part for herself.
She started doing her one-woman show, "A Black Woman Speaks," in 1974, partly out of the seemingly endless frustration of waiting for the few good parts for black women in Hollywood. "You find that the pattern is to be somebody's maid or housekeeper. Now there's nothing wrong with being a housekeeper--there are some I'd love to play--but there's a limit. I resolutely refuse to do things I do not like."
"A Black Woman Speaks" could have the words "After Centuries of Silence" added to its title, she says. It includes poems she has written as well as anecdotes.
"Creatively, we're living in a violent time," she said. "The last script I looked at I was to be choked to death! That didn't appeal to me. The violence that is perpetuated against women in current movies and television just astonishes me."
Richards has been involved in protests, formal and personal, against the paucity of meaningful roles for both blacks and women in what she calls "the industry." She says she approves of the boycott against films called for at the recent NAACP conference in Boston, as one of many possible ways of making the point. "It's a terrible thing to waste a talent, or an art," she says. "For us to have wonderful talents limited to the color of their skin is excrescence."
"I feel that white women are as outraged as I am by the parts offered to them. So we have to get together. It will mean health, happiness, and joy for everyone--including men--if things change."
With that view, she wants to write a play dramatizing the friendship between Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt. "Let history show us how to do it," she said.
Richards works with a community-based theater, the Los Angeles Cultural Center, where she teaches acting and, lately, directs. "I learned long ago in Vicksburg, Miss., to allow life to order me, not the other way around. For example, with my first play, I couldn't write the third act. My third act was a love affair I hadn't had yet."
Richards will join Mayor Marion Barry and Del. Walter E. Fauntroy in the celebration at 6 p.m. today in Lincoln Park, where the statue of Bethune is located. The event is sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women and the National Park Service and is open to the public.