Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, pr. 1965, revised pr., pb. 1969
Charades on East Fourth Street, pr. 1967 (one act)
Splendid Mummer, pr. 1988
Sounder, 1972 (adaptation of William H. Armstrong’s novel)
Sounder, Part Two, 1976
Bustin’ Loose, 1981 (adaptation of a story by Richard Pryor; with Pryor and Roger L. Simon)
Camera Three, 1963 season
The Terrible Veil, 1963
N.Y.P.D., 1967-1968 season
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, 1975 (adaptation of his play)
A Woman Called Moses, 1978 (miniseries based on Marcy Heidish’s book)
The Negro Ensemble Company, 1987
“Comment: Rambled Thoughts,” in Black Creation, 1973
“Lorraine Hansberry: Social Consciousness and the Will,” in Freedomways, 1979
Working for the stage, television, and motion pictures, Lonne Elder III was the link in African American drama between Lorraine Hansberry in the 1950’s and August Wilson in the 1980’s and 1990’s. He once said that he was representative of the new writers and new opportunities characteristic of the 1960’s. Celebrated for his powerful family dramas, he provided a sense of black life as “a glorious, adventurous thing, constantly unfolding in everyday life in its beauty, speech, walk, dance, and even in its anger.”
The watershed event in modern African American drama began to unfold March 11, 1959, with the first of 530 Broadway performances of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and the first to be directed by a black director in more than half a century, it brought to Hansberry the first New York Drama Critics Circle Award ever to go to an African American playwright. While the production itself was sufficient to rejuvenate African American theater, virtually all the people concerned with it became creative forces in their own right. The play was directed by Lloyd Richards, and its actors included Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett, Douglas Turner Ward, and Lonne Elder III.
Elder savored success whenever it came, for he had encountered loss and uncertainty quite early. While yet a baby, his family–including two brothers and twin sisters–moved to New Jersey. There, when he was ten, his father died, and his mother was killed shortly thereafter in an automobile accident. Several unhappy months on a relative’s farm ended when he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Jersey City. Such was the beginning of his informal education and the source of much of the urban texture of his plays. His uncle was a numbers runner who quickly saw his bright nephew’s value as a cover. He treated him as a capable partner, teaching him the ways of the city and demonstrating the positive side of hustling–the hard work required to survive on the streets–all to become familiar elements of Elder’s plays.
Formal and informal, Elder’s education was sporadic. He attended college and in 1952 was drafted into the army during the Korean War. Interested in writing and, after 1953, living in Harlem, he gravitated toward the Harlem Writers Guild, encouraged by two prominent figures, Robert Hayden and John Oliver Killens. Yet it was not until meeting Turner Ward that Elder became convinced he might earn a living by writing. They attended every play they could afford, Elder gradually realizing that he could do better than most of the scripts then being produced. He and Ward collaborated on several projects, most important among them being the establishment of the Negro Ensemble Company, for which he led the playwrights’ division. After landing the role of Bobo in Raisin in the Sun, he had enough income finally to concentrate on his own writing.
By 1963, he had earned a position as staff writer for the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS) television series Camera Three, an ambitious omnibus program but one relegated to the Sunday morning “arts slot.” In the same year, he wrote the script for a television drama, The Terrible Veil, and completed a one-act play that was never published or produced (a fate shared by his other one-act dramas). Armed in 1965 with the credit from an early production of his most significant play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, he won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study drama and filmmaking at Yale University from 1965 to 1967, a period he termed one of the most fruitful of his life. He kept his contacts on Broadway, deepened his knowledge, produced Charades on East Fourth Street, and became a staff writer for the television series N.Y.P.D. in 1967-1968.
In 1969, the production of the revised version of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men marked Elder as one of the most inventive writers in the nation. To audiences perplexed by the works of Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka, to Broadway regulars indifferent to confrontational plots and exotic characters, the play was a revelation. It portrayed a recognizable family, wounded and struggling, yet coherent and intact–a family who had not only a story but also a logic and an ethic. To Elder it brought three major awards and the offer to move to California to write for television and film, satisfying his wish to reach as large an audience as possible. During 1970-1971, he wrote for the detective series McCloud, and in 1972 he produced the scripts for two quite diverse films: Melinda was a violent mystery (Elder also played a detective in the film), while Sounder, another family tale, brought him a number of awards and an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
Most of his subsequent writing was for television. He adapted Ceremonies in Dark Old Men for television in 1975, and in 1978 A Woman Called Moses, a miniseries about Harriet Tubman, earned him a number of awards, including a Writer’s Guild of America award. He also began to produce television programs. In 1979, he was inducted into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame. The 1981 Richard Pryor film Bustin’ Loose was his lone screen credit of the 1980’s. Elder died of a chronic illness in 1996; he will be remembered for his sensitive and responsible portrayals of African American life.