Paul Carter Harrison, Trailblazing Playwright and Scholar, Passes Away at 85

Image: courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Paul Carter Harrison, a groundbreaking playwright and scholar passed away on Dec. 27 in Atlanta, the New York Times reports. He was 85.

His daughter, Fonteyn Harrison, confirmed that he passed at a retirement home. No cause of death was given.

In his award-winning plays, books, and essays, Harrison curated a blueprint for Black performing arts that linked the work of writers such as August Wilson to African ritual and myth.

In 1973, he released his play The Great MacDaddy, which won him an Obie Award. In his monograph The Drama of the Nommo: Black Theater in the African Continuum, Harrison argued that Black culture must be grounded in African traditions, even as it melded traditions from Europe.

Sandra Richards, an emerita professor of theater at Northwestern University spoke about how Harrison’s work was a revelation of his concept of Blackness.

“He was always interested in what he called the deep structures of Black life,” Richards said in an interview. “And for him, those deep structures have to do with ritual and myth.”

Born on March 1, 1936, in Manhattan, Harrison fell in love with theater after seeing plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. At the time, he was also deeply influenced by gospel music coming from storefront churches and the Black political discourse which he described as “mythopoetic.”

Harrison enrolled in New York University but later switched to psychology and transferred to Indiana University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1957.

He returned to New York to pursue a doctorate in psychology at the New School for Social Research, receiving a master’s degree in 1962; by then, he rediscovered his love of theater, and took a yearlong hiatus to develop as a writer.

Harrison traveled to Spain, then to the Netherlands, where he was accepted into a circle of progressive writers and artists.

In 1963, he married Ria Vroemen, but a few years later they would divorce a few years later.

In 1968, Harrison became a part of Howard University’s theater department during the rise of the Black Arts Movement. In response to the cultural awakening, he penned essays to convey what he was experiencing on stage. He began to explore African rituals and myths, jazz and encouraged emerging artists to explore all expressions of Blackness in their own work. At Howard, he insisted on performing Black plays instead of the Eurocentric plays that the University had traditionally performed back then.

After leaving Howard in 1970, he taught at California State University, Sacramento where he was in close proximity to the burgeoning Black arts scene in the Bay Area.

He later taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and at Columbia College Chicago, where he remained until his retirement in 2002.

In a 2002 interview, Harrison said his work was “a continuous preoccupation with trying to retrieve out of this particular experience we call the American experience some traces of our Africanness in the work that we do.”

Along with his daughter, he is survived by his second wife, Wanda Malone, and a grandson.

We extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Paul Carter Harrison.

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