Lonne Elder III 1931-1996
An American dramatist and screenwriter, Elder was the author of works designed to raise audience consciousness of racial tensions in modern America. He accomplished this goal by documenting the hardships that generations of prejudice have imposed on the African American community. His works explore the question of black identity by focusing on the theme of the resilience of the black family. In his 1969 play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, Elder depicted a traumatized ghetto family as a microcosm of African American experience. This dynamic is also at the heart of his 1972 screenplay for the motion picture Sounder, an adaptation of William H. Armstrong's novel about the bigotry and prejudice faced by a black family in the Depression-era South. As Elder himself claimed, his career shift from dramatist to screenwriter reflected his search for a wider audience for his message of social awareness.
Born in Americus, Georgia, in 1931, Elder moved with his family to a farm in New Jersey while still an infant. His father died when Elder was ten, and his mother was killed in a car accident in 1943. Orphaned, Elder went to live with his aunt and uncle in Jersey City, where he helped his uncle, a numbers runner, by following behind him with the betting slips. After high school Elder briefly attended New Jersey State Teachers College, withdrawing before the end of his first year. He moved to Harlem at nineteen and enrolled in courses at the Jefferson School and the New School for Social Research. Drafted into the U.S. army in 1952, he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. At nearby Fisk University he was introduced to poet and teacher Robert Hayden, who encouraged Elder's early literary efforts by helping him structure his short stories and poems. After his discharge from the military Elder returned to Harlem, where he held a succession of odd jobs—waiter, dock worker, poker dealer in an after-hours club—while beginning his career as a writer. Joining the Harlem Writers Guild, he came into contact with such playwrights as Lorraine Hansberry and Douglas Turner Ward. Elder shared an apartment with Ward between 1953 and 1956, an experience that encouraged him to write for the theater. He also studied acting during this period and worked with a summer stock company directed by Alice Childress, another member of the Harlem Writers Guild. Hansberry then asked Elder to audition for the role of Bobo in her play A Raisin in the Sun; he got the role and held it for two years, on Broadway and on tour, and the steady income allowed him to concentrate on his writing In 1963 Elder obtained a job as a staff writer on the CBS television series Camera Three. He married Betty Gross that same year; the couple had a son, David Dubois, before divorcing in 1967.
Between 1963 and 1969 Elder produced his greatest volume of work for the theater. An early version of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men received its first public reading at the New Dramatists Committee in 1965 and was performed at Wagner College, Staten Island, in July of the same year. Subsequently Elder received a series of grants and fellowships that enabled him to study drama and filmmaking at Yale University from 1965 to 1967. Around this time, the New York Mobilization for Youth commissioned him to write a play. The result, Charades on East Fourth Street, is a drama about a gang of black youths that holds a white policeman captive; it was first performed at Expo '67 in Montreal, Canada. Elder next obtained a job as a staff writer for the television series N.Y.P.D., which allowed him to remain in New York and strengthen his ties to the theater. From 1967 to 1969 he served as coordinator of the playwrights and directors unit of the Negro Ensemble Company (N.E.C.). His reworked version of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, performed by the N.E.C. in 1969, marked Elder's professional debut as a playwright. The drama opened to critical acclaim and received several awards, including the Outer Drama Critics Award and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award. The play also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination; it finished second in the voting. Elder married Judith Ann Johnson, a member of the N.E.C, cast of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, in 1969; shortly thereafter he moved to the West Coast to concentrate on writing feature films.
In 1972 Sounder, Elder's adaptation of William H. Armstrong's Newberry Prize-winning novel, was released to critical acclaim. His screenplay was nominated for an Academy award for best screenplay based on material from another medium. Elder next revised Ceremonies in Dark Old Men for a 1975 television production, which won a Christopher Award. Later he completed work on the 1976 release Sounder, Part 2. Other film work includes Bustin' Loose, a 1981 adaptation of a screen story by Richard Pryor. Elder returned to the stage with Splendid Mummer, the story of Ira Aldridge, a black Shakespearean actor who left America in the 1820s to pursue his career in Europe. In 1990 he produced the musical King, with music by Richard Blackford and lyrics by Maya Angelou and Alistair Beaton. Elder died in 1996.
Critics hold that despite his many contributions to film and television, Elder's reputation is based chiefly on one dramatic work, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. The "ceremonies" in the title refer to "rituals of survival," the mechanisms by which blacks try to reconcile their own personal values in a world dominated by whites. The two-act comedy-drama explores the various options facing a black ghetto family struggling for economic viability and self-fulfillment. The poverty and despair of the ghetto are evident in the setting: the virtually empty Harlem barbershop of Russell B. Parker. An ex-vaudeville dancer, Parker passes his time playing checkers with his friend Jenkins, maintaining the charade that he is a barber because he cannot face a menial job in the white business world. The humiliation of working for "the man" also keeps Parker's two sons unemployed. Theopolis, an aspiring painter, dreams of becoming an artist, while Bobby concentrates his efforts on becoming "the best shoplifter in Harlem." The family is supported by Parker's daughter, Adele, who works as a secretary. Adele precipitates the play's action by threatening to withdraw her financial support if the men in the family do not find jobs. Theo and Bobby convince their father to form an alliance with a racketeer, Blue Haven, and they turn the barbershop into a front for Haven's illegal operations. Over the objections of Adele, the men proceed to become involved in numbers running, shoplifting, and the illegal manufacture and sale of corn whiskey. The family enjoys a brief period of prosperity, but the endeavor ends in tragedy. Bobby is killed while attempting a robbery, and the shattered family must somehow find a way to carry on.
Critical response to Ceremonies in Dark Old Men was overwhelmingly positive. Richard Watts of the New York Post called it the "best play of the new season," and Edith Oliver of the New Yorker suggested that it was perhaps the finest first effort by an American playwright. Much of the credit for the enthusiastic response may be attributed to the performances of the 1969 N.E.C, cast, directed by Edmund Cambridge. The acting, which featured Douglas Turner Ward as Russell, was widely praised. Several critics noted that the N.E.C, seemed particularly attuned to Elder's work, a sense heightened by the proximity of the Harlem setting. While some commentators labeled the play "overlong," "repetitious," and "predictable," these were but minor reservations about a work the same reviewers hailed as "powerful," "moving," and "important." Reviewers praised Elder's realistic characters, observing that because they contained both personal weaknesses and strengths, they defied stereotypes. What some critics decried as naturalism, Elder labeled "more akin to exalted realism"; and most critics would agree with Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review, who extolled Elder's "trueness of observation" and his "complete avoidance of self-pity." The greatness of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, according to critics, is that it embodies the themes of love and social injustice not in symbols or vague abstractions, but in characters that exist as vivid representations of real people.