The image of Lloyd Richards preceded the man himself. Years before I met the famous director, his name was spoken the way one would speak of some sort of noble ghost. Through other people’s words and gestures, I started to get a picture of the man. Although I never had the chance to work with Mr. Richards, his very presence gave me several things to strive for as an artist and person.
LESSON #1: Give In the fall of 2002, I began training at the Actors Studio. In my first academic year, Richards had taken a sabbatical leave because of his declining health, yet whenever someone would mention his name, they would smile. This was impossible to miss. Professors and students spoke well of him when he wasn’t around, when nobody important was listening, when nothing was at stake, which meant that he was more than just kind. He was a giving man.
LESSON #2: Anything is Possible There was nothing that assured Lloyd Richards would survive his childhood, much less go on to become a Broadway director. He grew up in a black working-class family in the middle of the Great Depression. His father died when he was nine and a few years later his mother went blind. At the age of 13, he started working so that his family could survive. Richards supported his mother and four siblings, excelled at his studies, and was accepted into Wayne University. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he signed up for the US Army and served with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. Coming back to Wayne University, he engrossed himself in radio and stage drama, started up a theatre company in Detroit and, a few years later, moved to New York to pursue an acting career. He did all of this before he reached the age of 30.
LESSON # 3: There is Greatness in Humility For two years, the image of Lloyd Richards grew in my head. There was Lloyd Richards, the Broadway director of A Raisin in the Sun and numerous August Wilson plays. There was Lloyd Richards, the humanitarian and teacher, dispensing gems of wisdom. Then there was Lloyd Richards, the fighter born in the middle of the Depression who clawed his way through school and many of the doors that were shut to black artists at the time. These images blended together into this mythical giant with a booming voice and sharp wit. I imagined that he was a man who walked around with a silver cane, monocle and silk cape, belly-laughing while sipping fine Brandy. After class one morning, I walked out into the hallway and saw this smiling old man sitting on a bench. Without ever seeing his picture, I knew that this was he. He was without my imagined monocle, cape or huge frame; in fact, Richards’s feet barely touched the ground with the tips of his toes. Dressed in simple brown pants, white shirt and a beige cap covering a crown of white hair, his eyes scanned the room. Richards didn’t shout or belly laugh. He just exuded the elegant confidence and avuncular warmth of his years. Then he smiled at me. I walked toward him expecting a word. But Richards didn’t say anything, so I stood there looking at him. This became a small ritual. After our Monday class, you could find Richards sitting on the bench by the door, waiting for his car to pick him up. A few times I even helped him up when his car arrived. His wide, rectangular glasses seemed bigger than his face, but beneath them were the eyes. Still alert, kind and beaming with an inner light. It was impossible not to smile back.
Aurin Squire is a playwright and reporter who lives in South Park Slope. He is also co-creator and writer for the online cartoon Bodega Ave.