Theater News

Vinnette Carroll, Groundbreaking Director, Dies at 80

Carroll was the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway.

Vinnette Carroll
Vinnette Carroll

Vinnette Carroll, the Tony-nominated director of Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, died in her sleep early Tuesday, November 3. She was 80 years old.

Carroll is the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway, a credit that is usually associated with her work on Don't Bother Me… in 1972. However, a theater program in the collection of the New York Public Library suggests that she may have made the breakthrough more than a decade earlier as director of Langston Hughes's Black Nativity at the 41st Street Theatre in 1961. That was also the year Carroll won an Obie as an actress, for her performance in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. Three years later, she won an Emmy Award for Beyond the Blues and, in later years, she would go on to win the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

Carroll was born in New York in 1922, and received a masters in psychology from New York University in 1946. She worked as a psychologist with the New York City Bureau of Child Guidance as she pursued her doctorate at Columbia, but eventually gave up that career to pursue acting. In 1948, she accepted a scholarship to study with Erwin Piscator at the New School for Social Research; her fellow students included Stella Adler and Lee Strasburg. After touring in a one-woman show that she devised for herself, she spent the next 11 years teaching acting at the High School for Performing Arts.

In the late 1960s, Carroll founded and acted as artistic director of the Urban Arts Corps, focusing on works by writers of color and directing all of the group's productions herself. It was there, while working on a musical version of Bury the Dead, that she was introduced to a budding songwriter named Micki Grant. The two women worked on that project for many years — it was produced in New York in the early 1980s as The Boogie-Woogie Rumble of a Dream Deferred — while making time for several others as well. Their joint output would eventually include , a revue on the subject of contemporary urban life; and Never Jam Today, a musical retelling of Alice in Wonderland.

Grant supplied the book, music, and lyrics for Don't Bother Me…, and Carroll supplied the energetic staging that landed her a Tony nomination. It was the first time any African-American — or any woman — was nominated as director of a musical. Carroll would receive two more Tony nominations in 1977, as director and co-author of the book for Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. Inducted into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame in 1979, Carroll moved to Florida the following year. She established the Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company in Ft. Lauderdale in 1985 and led it until she suffered a stroke in 2000. Aware that she could no longer oversee the troupe, she asked to have her name removed from it. The company was renamed the Metropolitan Diversity Theatre to comply with her wishes, but the building that houses it remains the Vinnette Carroll Theatre.

Carroll left instructions for her body to be cremated and explicitly forbade funeral services or memorials — but, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, memorial plans are pending.