Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Duke Ellington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, W.C. Handy, Herb Jeffries, Hattie McDaniel – and many more – Tribute to Canada Lee – June 9, 1941 – Mutual Special Events – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
A rare and special program from 1941 this weekend. A tribute to the Actor, Jockey, Boxer and Musician Canada Lee.
This program was a celebration of the Broadway opening for the Charles Wright play Native Son, which Orson Welles also produced and which Lee had the starring role of Bigger Thomas. On-hand for this broadcast was a veritable Who’s Who of African-American artists at the time (1941). Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind), Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (The Jack Benny Program), Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Herb “Flamingo” Jeffries, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson and many more – all crammed into this 1/2 hour radio progrm, aired on June 9, 1941 over the Mutual Broadcasting system.
The sound is a little “iffy” in spots, but the historic importance of this program is inescapable, and in the 1/2 hour it’s on, you’re treated to so many names and voices that were very rarely heard, even at the time, that it’s a treat and a chance at discovery of some very important and influential figures in the arts and music.
Native Son is a 1941 Broadway drama written by Paul Green and Richard Wright based on Wright’s novel Native Son. It was produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman with Bern Bernard as associate producer and directed by Welles with scenic design by John Morcom. It ran for 114 performances from March 24, 1941 to June 28, 1941 at the St. James Theatre.
This is the last time Welles and Houseman, co-founders of the Mercury Theatre, ever worked together.
Richard Wright and Paul Green edited Native Son’s plot to fit the time constraints of a play more easily. Certain parts are edited or cut completely. In the novel, the daughter of Bigger Thomas’s employers, Mary, has a communist boyfriend, Jan, who Bigger tries to blame Mary’s murder on. Bigger even tries to collect ransom for Mary’s supposedly missing body. He also becomes the Dalton’s chauffeur only after a failed robbery attempt of a white man’s store. In the drama, these details are erased. It becomes simpler and more objective–Bigger becomes the Dalton’s chauffeur because of a social worker. He kills Mary by accident, as in the book, but is shortly found after a manhunt through Chicago.
Canada Lee was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata on March 3, 1907, in the San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City. His father, James Cornelius Lionel Canegata, was born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, and as a youth had migrated to New York, where he married Lydia Whaley Gadsen. Raised by his parents in Harlem, Lee had an aptitude for music, and at age seven he began studying violin and piano with J. Rosamond Johnson at the Music School Settlement for Colored People. He made his concert debut at age 11, performing a student recital at Aeolian Hall. But after seven years of music studies, without explanation, he put away his violin and ran away from home. In 1921, aged 14, Lee went to Saratoga Springs, New York, and began a two-year career as a jockey.
Lee discovered a love for Broadway theatre during his years as a prizefighter. He remembered Show Boat as the first stage production he ever saw: “A big, tough fighter, all muscle, just sobbing,” he recalled.
His acting career began by accident in 1934. While at a YMCA to apply for a job as a laborer, Lee stumbled upon an audition in progress and was recognized by playwright Augustus Smith. Lee was invited to try out, and won a supporting role in Brother Mose, directed by Frank H. Wilson. Sponsored by New York’s Civil Works Administration, the show toured the boroughs, playing at community centers and city parks into the fall of the year.In October 1934 Lee succeeded Rex Ingram in the Theatre Union’s revival of Stevedore, which toured to Chicago, Detroit and other U.S. cities after its run on Broadway. It was his first professional role.
Lee then was cast in his first major role, that of Banquo, in the legendary Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth (1936), adapted and directed by Orson Welles.
“I never would have amounted to anything in the theatre if it hadn’t been for Orson Welles,” Lee recalled. “The way I looked at acting, it was interesting and it was certainly better than going hungry. But I didn’t have a serious approach to it until … I bumped into Orson Welles. He was putting on a Federal Theatre production of Macbeth with Negro players and, somehow, I won the part of Banquo. He rehearsed us for six solid months, but when the play finally went on before an audience, it was right—and it was a wonderful sensation, knowing it was right. Suddenly, the theatre became important to me. I had a respect for it, for what it could say. I had the ambition—I caught it from Orson Welles—to work like mad and be a convincing actor.”
Macbeth was sold out for ten weeks at the Lafayette Theatre. After an additional two weeks on Broadway it toured the nation, including performances at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas.
Lee became a star overnight in his ultimate stage success, Native Son (1941), an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel staged on Broadway by Orson Welles. The show was a spectacular hit for both Welles and Lee, who starred in the initial New York run, a 19-month national tour, and a second run on Broadway with accessible ticket prices. “Mr. Lee’s performance is superb,” wrote Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, who called him “certainly the best Negro actor of his time, as well as one of the best actors in this country.” Wright also applauded the performance, noting the contrast between Lee’s affable personality and his intensity as Bigger Thomas. The sympathetic portrayal of a black man driven to murder by racial hatred brought much criticism however, especially from the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Legion of Decency, and the ensuing pressure forced the play to close.
During World War II, Lee continued to act in plays and in films. In 1942, he played in two comedies by William Saroyan, and earned approving reviews despite the generally negative response to these plays. In 1943, his name was above the title on the marquee for South Pacific, a race-themed drama directed by Lee Strasberg that again was panned by critics but won Lee critical praise.
As an actor, Lee came into contact with many of the leading progressive figures in the country. Langston Hughes, for instance, wrote two brief plays for Lee; these were submitted to the Theater Project, but their criticism of racism in America was deemed too controversial, and neither was staged. Lee spoke to schools, sponsored various humanitarian events, and began speaking directly against the existing segregation in America’s armed forces, while simultaneously acknowledging the need to win World War II. To this latter end, he appeared at numerous USO events; he won an award from the United States Recruiting Office and another from the Treasury Department for his help in selling war bonds. These sentiments would carry on throughout his life, culminating in his early firsthand account of apartheid in South Africa.
Lee was an early influence on physician and human rights activist H. Jack Geiger. They met in 1940 when Geiger, a 14-year-old middle-class Jewish runaway, was backstage at a Broadway production of Native Son. Lee agreed to take Geiger in when he showed up at his door in Harlem asking for a place to stay. With the consent of his parents, Geiger stayed with Lee for over a year. Lee took on the role of surrogate father and introduced Geiger to Langston Hughes, Billy Strayhorn, Richard Wright, and Adam Clayton Powell. Geiger eventually became a journalist, then a doctor who co-founded the first community health center in the United States, Columbia Point Health Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He became a founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and Physicians for Human Rights, and established community health centers in Mississippi and South Africa. Geiger says he would never have moved so deeply in these worlds so quickly if not for his experiences with Canada Lee.
By the late 1940s, the rising tide of anti-communism had made many of his earlier contacts politically dangerous. In 1949, the trade journal Variety stated that under no circumstance was Lee to be used in American Tobacco’s televised production of a radio play he had recently starred in because he was “too controversial”.
The same year, the FBI offered to clear Lee’s name if he would publicly call Paul Robeson a communist. Lee refused and responded by saying, “All you’re trying to do is split my race.” According to newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, Lee stated that he intended to come out and “publicly blast Paul Robeson.” However, the fact that the friendship between the two actors remained until Lee’s death suggests that Robeson put no faith in Winchell’s claim.
At the height of the Hollywood blacklist, Lee managed to find work in 1950 as the star of a British film Cry, The Beloved Country, for which both he and Sidney Poitier were smuggled into South Africa as indentured servants in order to play their roles as African ministers. During filming, Lee had his first heart attack, and he never fully recovered his health. The film’s message of universal brotherhood stands as Lee’s final work towards this aim.
Being on the Hollywood blacklist prevented him from getting further work. Scheduled to appear in Italy to begin production on a filmed version of Othello, he was repeatedly notified that his passport “remained under review”. Canada Lee was reportedly to star as Bigger Thomas in the Argentine version of Native Son but was replaced in the role by Richard Wright, author of the novel, when Lee had to withdraw.
As a reminder and to be able to hear Canada Lee in performance of this memorable play, here is Mutual Broadcasting’s Tribute to Lee and a portion of the play as it was first broadcast on June 6, 1941.