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Vinnette Carroll, 80; Pioneering Theater Director

November 07, 2002|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

Vinnette Carroll, Broadway's first black woman director, died Tuesday in Lauderhill, Fla. Carroll, who brought African American-oriented musical theater to a wider public in the 1970s, had suffered a stroke last year and had symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, though the exact cause of death was not announced. She was 80.

Carroll, who also was an actress, was best known for directing Micki Grant's musical revue "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" in the early 1970s and for adapting the Gospel According to St. Matthew into the 1976 musical "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God," which Carroll also staged.

"Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" was developed from Carroll's off-off-Broadway Urban Arts Corps and eventually became a hit on Broadway, where Carroll received a Tony Award nomination. In Los Angeles, Carroll staged "Cope" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1972 in a production that then moved to the Huntington Hartford (now the Doolittle) Theatre in Hollywood.

"She was a force of nature," said Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson, "and she loved being a mentor and generator of opportunities for others."

Carroll developed "Your Arms" for the Spoleto, Italy, Festival of Two Worlds in 1975, premiered it at Ford's Theatre in Washington and then took it to Broadway, where she received Tony nominations for her script and staging.

"No one knows how to energize a stage better than she does," wrote Newsweek critic Jack Kroll. The show returned to Broadway twice and also toured.

Her work of that era was "breathtakingly exciting," said Barbara Hauptman, executive director of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and a former Urban Arts managing director. "And she had the best, most infectious laugh ever."

In a 1979 interview, Carroll told The Times, "I decided my salvation was to create something for myself, a theater for myself and others where your main worry wasn't getting a [television] series. When I first heard gospel -- I'd grown up in the Anglican church -- I just flipped. 'You mean religion can be like this?' I said."

The daughter of a dentist, Carroll spent much of her childhood with grandparents in Jamaica. But she was brought to New York at the age of 10. She and her sisters became the only black students at their New York public school.

She credited her "very cultured" mother with many of her values. "She didn't want us to be bitter about race," she said. "If we used slang, she'd say, 'How poverty-stricken of you.' "

Prodded by her father to become a doctor, Carroll graduated from Long Island University and received a master's degree in psychology from New York University. She was on the brink of obtaining a doctorate from Columbia University, when she decided that her true passion was in the theater.

After studying acting with the director Erwin Piscator, she began acting and directing in the '50s, staging a production of "Dark of the Moon" at the Harlem YMCA with a cast that included James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne and Cicely Tyson. She received a 1961 Obie Award for "Moon on a Rainbow Shawl" and a 1964 Emmy Award for co-conceiving and supervising the TV program "Beyond the Blues."

In 1967, Carroll became the first director of the New York State Arts Council's Ghetto Arts Program and began to develop the Urban Arts Corps. She also made her Los Angeles directing debut that year, at Inner City Cultural Center.

Among her film credits as an actress were "One Potato, Two Potato," "Up the Down Staircase" and "Alice's Restaurant."

She had lived in Florida since 1980 and operated the Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company in Fort Lauderdale.

She is survived by a sister, Dorothy Hudgins, of New York and Florida.

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