June 20, 2008
I met Kathryn at the Obama headquarters in Hoboken on Super Tuesday. She is dynamic, glamorous, funny and very charismatic. It just took a few minutes conversation with her to feel I'd known her all my life. After that meeting I went to her website and found that her confident style and magnetic good looks qualify her as a marketing and networking expert and a "thought leader." (I don't remember ever having met one of those before.) I also discovered that she was writing a book about Diana Sands, who happens to have been her cousin. Sands, who died prematurely of cancer, was one of the first beautiful black actresses in this country whose ambition it was to change the world by changing the part of it she knew best, the theatre.
When Kathryn invited me to a reading of a play about her cousin's life, I was eager to see it. I remembered Diana Sands from when I was a young actress in the early 1960's, just moving to New York, and she was appearing on Broadway. I had seen her in the film version of A Raisin in the Sun, and had heard her on radio interviews saying how it was her dream to be cast in roles that were color-neutral -- that is, parts that might have been written for white actresses but that could be played by any first-rate actor. This was radical thinking for the time. The obvious response is, "Why not?" Obvious now, but not so in 1964.
The play reading was to be at a community center/library (known as a Center for Black Culture) in Harlem. It would be the first time for me to take a subway to Harlem since moving to Hoboken; indeed, probably the first time I'd ever gone there at night alone. But I knew times had changed -- when I lived in New York in the 1960's and 70's I may have had reason to have some trepidation. Trains were dirty and not always air conditioned, and the trains to Harlem were packed not only with people, but with an air of anger if not menace, at least to a lone white woman.
Knowing that things were different now, I was excited to board the train, and knew enough to let a few trains, sardine-can-packed and undercooled in the rush hour crush of humanity, pass by at the station. Taking the third, I had a wonderful train ride. I found a seat, the car was air conditioned, and the other riders were friendly and looked nothing so much as eager to get home. Seeing Harlem as the sun set was awesome.
The play reading was an exhilarating experience. I rode up the elevator with the first of the audience, and there was Kathryn, herding us in and greeting everybody with a hug and her beautiful smile. The place probably sat about a hundred, most of whom were black and impressively upscale. There were several actors in the audience, and some who had known Diana Sands, Lorraine Hansberry, and others from the theatre of the time.
The play is a work in progress, basically a monologue taking the audience to the life and times of the actress. Nedra McClyde, a sylph-like, soft-voiced young woman, certainly captured the essence of Diana Sands, not only in physical appearance but also in the range of intellectual prowess and the passion that was at the heart of her talent. Director Alfred Preisser had her move just enough, and address certain passages from plays with just the right amount of commitment to transport the audience with her.
When the discussion began, it was clear that Diana Sands herself had been evoked, and that everyone wanted to share memories of her as an artist and a person. I wanted to talk with the playwright about the play, but decided the best way to do that was after the general discussion, so I unloaded a few of my ideas onto him when the evening was winding down.
Kathryn has assured me that she'll talk over some of my thoughts and maybe I can be some help as she pulls her book together. I certainly hope so. My trip to Harlem and my presence in that extraordinary assemblage was altogether satisfying, but I don't expect it will be my last time.