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New play recalls London actor who performed on Broadway, Time cover

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Richard Berry Harrison is not a name that many can easily give.

But it’s a name and a face that once graced the cover of Time magazine, the marquee of a Broadway theater and to this day remains the namesake of a library and auditorium in Raleigh, North Carolina, a high school in Blytheville, Ark., and a gymnasium in Selma, NC

There’s even a park on South Street in London named after Harrison, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he was born and raised here, the son of runaway slaves.

Richard Berry Harrison

People just don’t know about him, said Jeff Culbert, a London-based playwright and actor who wrote an audio play for a man on Harrison, Elocution: The Life of Richard Berry Harrison.

Actor Walter Borden, Stratford Festival veteran and Member of the Order of Canada, plays Harrison, and the recording is slated for release on March 14, the anniversary of Harrisons’ death in 1935 from heart failure. Details are not yet available.

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Even theater people don’t know it, Culbert said. So part of my dream is to let people know who he is and to celebrate him, especially during Black History Month and to recognize his impact on black culture, but also as a Londoner and a Canadian.

Richard B. Harrison was an actor, teacher, drama reader and speaker who was featured on the cover of Time on March 4, 1935 five years after introducing the character De Lawd in more than 1,650 performances of Marc Connellys’ play The Green Pastures, which opened on Broadway on February 26, 1930 and won a Pulitzer Prize.

The same show also toured more than 200 cities, including the Grand Theater in his hometown for three performances over two days in October 1934.

Harrison died 10 days after the Time cover was published.

In 2002, the Harrisons story inspired the late Chris Doty, a London journalist, historian, documentary maker, author and playwright, to lobby the City of London to name the park and erect a plaque.

Culberts’ game has been brewing for several years. He spent a few days in 2018 researching Harrison at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

I found some amazing stuff there, Culbert said.

I even found a note Mary Pickford (the silent movie-era Canadian star who helped build the film industry) wrote to Richard about Green Pastures.

In the two boxes of material Culbert received at the Schomburg Center, he also found a manuscript, an unpublished autobiography of Harrison. The autobiography included many stories, including one about Harrison mixing him up with a local bully and a newspaper delivery man, also known as the newsie, at the height of the Donnelly trial in 1880.

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Harrison was born in London in 1864, the oldest of five children born to escape American slaves and named by his mother who had attended a performance of Shakespeares Richard III. He studied at the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art and with a private drama trainer. For most of his career he performed as a dramatic reader of poetry and adaptations of plays, including Shakespeare, while occasionally working as a train porter.

Culbert said Harrison fell victim to widespread racism in the United States that discouraged producers and directors from hiring black people for their shows. Harrison was a fair-skinned black man but rejected suggestions that he assumed the identity of a Mexican or other more acceptable heritage, Culbert said.

That’s when he decided he was going to be a one-man show and hit the road, Culbert said. And he did. He took to the road and made a living playing intermittently. There were slow times and then he worked as a train porter.

Culbert said it was no surprise that Harrison wasn’t well known.

It doesn’t take long for the next generation to forget that, Culbert said.

There are so many greats coming and going, people like (French actor) Sarah Bernhardt. Few young actors would know it. People can just fall off the radar.

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