Rosetta LeNoire never gets tired of praising Eubie Blake, the late legendary pianist who gave a 13-year-old LeNoire music lessons in Harlem for 50 cents an hour, introduced her to the pleasure of topping a cup of hot chocolate with a marshmallow ("At my house we didn't get both at the same time") and taught her the most enduring lesson of all -- the providence of racial harmony.
"My first introduction into discrimination was within my own race -- based on shades of color -- and I always used to look down at my feet," recalls LeNoire. "And Eubie said to me, 'Now listen, Rosie, hold your head up high, hold your shoulders back . . . always look up and be proud of yourself.' " Blake told her that just as every flower's stem is green, everybody's blood is red, and said to her: "You will always be a beautiful flower in God's garden."
"Now I thought, to tell you the truth, now how can he say I'm beautiful? I'm black," she remembers saying to herself. "But now I call myself a Black-Eyed Susie because I feel very strong and big and [am] looking up in the sun all the time."
LeNoire, 74, is founder and artistic director of AMAS Repertory Theatre, a multiracial performing arts organization in New York devoted exclusively to the development of musical theater. AMAS (Latin for "you love"), which was founded in 1969, produces six musicals a year, including two shows by the Eubie Blake Children's Theatre, LeNoire's tribute to her mentor. (She is raising funds to buy a permanent site for the AMAS-Eubie Blake Cultural Center, which would house both the repertory and children's theaters.)
"I only produce musicals . . . because I know that music is the one avenue where no one seems to have any discriminatory attitudes," says LeNoire. "Theater techniques are a marvelous implement to bring people of all races, colors, creeds and dimensions together.
LeNoire -- whose own acting career has spanned 47 years, with Broadway credits that include "Destry Rides Again," "Sophie" and the 1983 revival of "You Can't Take It With You" -- is receiving the fifth annual Richard L. Coe Award for extending the boundaries of theater. Rosemary Harris, Ellis Rabb, Richard Kiley, Eileen Heckert and other celebrities will pay tribute to her tonight.
Being honored in a Washington theater where "Hot Mikado" is playing holds special meaning for LeNoire. Her Broadway debut was in the 1939 Mike Todd production of "The Hot Mikado," which starred her godfather, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson.
"I don't want anyone to tell me that there haven't been gigantic steps [taken] in this country that I was born in to make a better world for everybody," says LeNoire, recalling that when "we came here with Uncle Bo to play in 'The Hot Mikado' [at the National Theatre] we could not stay in a first-class hotel.
"We had to go up on the Hill and stay in the black hotel. And now you can go anywhere and stay in any hotel," she says. "And nobody pays any attention."
LeNoire says she has no tolerance for those who have pressured her over the years to make AMAS an all-black theater. "I will not discriminate," she says. "I'd be cheating myself of all the goodies of life because I can learn about other people's cultures and it enriches my life."
She doesn't take a salary or expenses from AMAS, preferring to leave money in the coffers so she can hire qualified business administrators. Her income these days is derived from eight or nine appearances a season as Mama on the NBC-TV series "Gimme a Break" and an occasional film role ("Moscow on the Hudson," "Brother From Another Planet," "Brewster's Millions"). But she doesn't like to stay away long from her theater because it is the mainspring of her life.
"Come August the 8th I'll be 75," says LeNoire before noting how much there is left to do. "I don't have all that [much] time. I'm losing so many of my friends. I'm losing them like crazy."
But LeNoire even has plans for the hereafter. "I know that when I get up there I'm going to organize another theater," she says. "And of course you know it's going to be multiracial.
"And if I get up there and my friends aren't there then I'm going down there," she says happily. "I'm going to go where we can really have a good theater."