Richard Berry Harrison is not a name many can easily place.
But it’s a name and a face that once graced the cover of Time magazine, the marquee of a Broadway theatre and to this day remains the namesake of a library and auditorium in Raleigh, N.C., a high school in Blytheville, Ark., and a gymnasium in Selma, N.C.
There’s even a park on South Street in London named after Harrison, which shouldn’t be a surprise given he was born and raised here, the son of escaped slaves.
“People just don’t know about him,” said Jeff Culbert, a London playwright and actor who has written a one-man audio play about Harrison, Elocution: The Life of Richard Berry Harrison.
Actor Walter Borden, a veteran of the Stratford Festival and a member of the Order of Canada, plays Harrison and the recording is expected to be released March 14, the anniversary of Harrison’s death in 1935 of heart failure. Details are not yet available.
“Even theatre people don’t know about him,” said Culbert. “So, part of my dream is to let people know who he is and to celebrate him, especially during Black History Month and recognize his impact on Black culture, but also as a Londoner and a Canadian.”
Richard B. Harrison was an actor, teacher, dramatic reader and lecturer who was featured on the cover of Time on March 4, 1935 – five years after introducing the character “De Lawd” during more than 1,650 performances of Marc Connelly’s play, The Green Pastures, which opened on Broadway on February 26, 1930 and won a Pulitzer Prize.
The same show also toured to more than 200 cities, including the Grand Theatre in his hometown for three performances during two days in October 1934.
Harrison died 10 days after the Time cover was published.
In 2002, Harrison’s story inspired the late Chris Doty, a London journalist, historian, documentary filmmaker, author and playwright to lobby the City of London to name the park after him and erect a plaque.
Culbert’s play has been several years in the making. He spent a couple of days in 2018 researching Harrison at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.
“I found some amazing stuff there,” said Culbert.
“I even found a note that Mary Pickford (the Canadian born star of the silent film era who helped build the film industry) wrote to Richard about The Green Pastures.”
In the two boxes of material Culbert was given at the Schomburg Center he also found a manuscript, an unpublished autobiography by Harrison. The autobiography included many stories, including one about Harrison mixing it up with a local bully and newspaper delivery boy, also known as a “newsie,” at the height of the Donnelly trial in 1880.
Harrison was born in London in 1864, the oldest of five children born to escaped U.S. slaves and named by his mother who had seen a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He studied at Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art, and with a private drama coach. For most of his career he performed as a dramatic reader of poetry and adaptions of plays, including Shakespeare, while occasionally working as a train porter.
Culbert said Harrison was a victim of the widespread racism in the U.S. that discouraged producers and directors from hiring Blacks for their shows. Harrison was a light-skinned Black but rejected suggestions he assume the identity of a Mexican or other more acceptable heritage, said Culbert.
“That’s when he decided he was going to be a one-man show and go on the road,” said Culbert. “And he did. He went on the road and made a living performing off and on. There were slow times and then he’d work as a train porter.”
Culbert said it’s not surprising Harrison is not well known.
“It doesn’t take that long for the next generation to forget,” said Culbert.
“There are so many greats who come and go, people like (French actor) Sarah Bernhardt. Not many young actors would know about her. People can just fall off the radar.”