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Errol Hill, 82; Playwright Was an Expert on Black Dramatists

September 17, 2003|From a Times Staff Writer

Errol G. Hill, a playwright, director, and expert on black dramatists in the United States and the Caribbean who was the first African American to earn tenure at Dartmouth College, died of cancer Monday at his home in Hanover, N.H. He was 82.

Hill, a native of Trinidad who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, taught at Dartmouth for 35 years until his retirement in 1989.

Over a nearly five-decade career, he produced and directed 120 plays and pageants in the United States, West Indies, Nigeria and England; wrote 11 plays; and wrote or edited 15 books, including a notable history of black Shakespearean actors.

He also was an influential figure in the development of modern Caribbean theater as founder of a West Indian acting company, the Whitehall Players, in the 1940s.

Hill received his early theater training in England, earning degrees in drama in 1951 from the University of London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

He worked as an actor and announcer and taught creative arts in the West Indies before moving to the United States in the early 1960s and enrolling at Yale University. He earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees at Yale between 1962 and 1966.

After a short stint at Richmond College of the City University of New York, he joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1968.

He headed Dartmouth's drama department for many years and led the college's Summer Repertory Program for six seasons. The college productions he directed ranged from Sophocles' "Antigone" to Jean Genet's "The Blacks."

He also staged an original Caribbean musical he wrote called "Man Better Man." It blended village music and rhymed calypso verse into a story about a young man who decides to win the affections of a woman named Petite Belle Lilly by challenging the local stick-fighting champion.

Other plays by Hill were praised for such innovations as incorporating vernacular speech and aspects of Trinidadian and Caribbean culture.

Hill developed an international reputation as an expert on African American Caribbean theater through his scholarly writings, including "Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors," which was published in 1984 with a foreword by actor John Houseman.

He also wrote "the "Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theater," published in 1994, and "A History of African American Theater," co-written with James. V. Hatch and published this year.

"Acting and directing -- I loved that, [but] nobody was getting the history right; nobody was interested in what went before," Hill, who was the Chancellor's Distinguished Professor at UC Berkeley in 1983, said recently. "So I started [exploring the history of blacks in theater].... Whenever I felt there was a need, I took it on."

In 1996, Hill was awarded the Robert Lewis Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Theater Research by Kent State University.

"Errol Hill has done more to further the serious study of African American theater and drama, as well as the theater of the Caribbean, than any one scholar in the world," Brown University theater professor Don Wilmeth said at the time.

Hill is survived by his wife of 47 years, Grace Hope Hill of Hanover; four children; a brother; two sisters; and three grandchildren.

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