Frank Alvin Silvera
by Garland Lee Thompson, Sr.
Co-Founder - Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop
Everywhere I go now and the people that I meet, very often ask: "Who was Frank Silvera?" What did he do and when did he live? Was he an actor, writer, poet or playwright? Did he found a workshop for writers, actors and directors? Where did his workshop begin; in New York, Hollywood, or where?" I, invariably, answer with the things that I know about Frank Silvera, a black actor, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica on July 24, 1914. He moved to the United States and grew up with his family in Boston Public Schools, before going to New York City, where he launched his career as an actor.
He joined such troupes as the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, which eventually presented one of its most famous productions of the play, "Anna Lucasta," that played successfully on Broadway and in London. Frank Silvera was there at the beginning of a new era of blacks in the Theatre of America. He worked with actors, Ossie Davis, Alice Childress, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Maxwell Granville, Hilda Simms, Harry Belafonte, Stanley Green, Claudia McNeill, Diana Sands, Louise Stubbs, Isabel Cooley, Gertrude Jeannette, and a host of others, who entered the new American Theatre scene.
Nowhere in the world was there such a large concentration of skilled actors of African descent, who struggled and eased "on and offstage" for a variety of reasons, causes and whenever there was work and roles to play. Except for a few, like actress/playwright, Alice Childress ("Wedding Band"), Loften Mitchell ("Bubblin' Brown Sugar"), Abram Hill ("Strivers Row"), and Langston Hughes ("Simply Heavenly"), the poet/playwright, who emerged during the Harlem Renaissance days, prior to World War 11, in the so-called "Heyday of Harlem," this new genre of African American participation in the performing arts, according to some Theatre historians, for the most part, had been an actor's movement. There were few black directors, such as Dick Campbell and actress/director Rose McClendon. There were few black designers and even fewer producers, to speak of.
Yes, very few during this evolving time and period that produced such exciting new talent as Frank Silvera, who make the difficult transition from "uptown in Harlem to downtown" on Broadway and films in New York and Hollywood. Due to his looks, ability to transcend color, race, his skill with language, the new nearly dead art of make-up, and perhaps the surname of Silvera, Frank moved into the new elite inner circles of the leading American Theatre groups, where he became an active member of the famed Actors' Studio of New York, a "spin-off" of the old Group Theatre, of the Thirties. Almost no one in the audience realized that he was black, when Frank Silvera, played the Italian father of characters portrayed by Ben Gazzara and Anthony Franciosa, in the Broadway hit play, "A Hatful of Rain." Actress Shelley Winters, who also appeared in that production, most certainly knew, as did Harry Guardino and Henry Silva. And Steve McQueen, who was an understudy actor in the production, and it had been rumored that Frank helped to save his job during a dispute backstage.
Actors, Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, Estelle Parsons, Geraldine Page, Lou Gilbert, Rip Torn, Paul Newman, Lonny Chapman, Lee Grant, Jimmy Dean, along with directors, Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn, Lee Strasberg, Anna Strasberg, and the vast majority of the Actors' Studio members, all knew very well. However, they did not tell, or it did not matter to them that he was, racially, but more importantly, who he was, and that he could play practically, any role or character given to him. As he did so, powerfully in playwright, Tennessee Williams' s classic play, "Camino Real". Clad in a white suit and with a big cigar in the play, Silvera portrayed the South American mystery character of the Williams play. Without question he was whatever he said, and appeared to be in the human color spectrum, as seen through the magic of the theatre. Probably, most people in the theatre, black or white, never gave it much thought, that Frank Silvera was a true forerunner of the current catch phrase concept of "color blind casting," when he so expertly played the title role in "King Lear", as well as the black musician father in James Baldwin's play, "The Amen Comer". He produced, directed, and starred in the Baldwin play in Hollywood, San Francisco, and on Broadway in New York. "The Amen Corner," opened at the beginning of the Sixties, during the new black awareness of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Some, who knew him, felt that the Civil Rights Movement in general and tragic incidents in particular, such as the murder of three young white and black Civil Rights workers, in the height of the racial struggles in the deep South, profoundly affected Frank Silvera. He protested and expressed his true feeling and beliefs clearly, for the first time, when he "went public," in the act of placing full page protest advertisements in the Hollywood trade newspapers. He attacked the film Industry and challenged all of his old acting and film associates in Hollywood and New York, to stand up and be counted in the fight against "Segregation in America," as the national custom in the country, since slavery and the Civil War. During this time, he formed the Frank Silvera Theatre of Being, in Los Angeles, on Robertson Boulevard, a few blocks from the rich ghetto of Beverly Hills, California. He financed his theatre workshop from monies that he earned through acting in more that 20 major feature films, including "Viva Zapata", "Mutiny On The Bounty", "Toys In The Attic", "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre", "One-Eyed Jack's", numerous television films and television series, such as "The Untouchables", "The Twilight Zone", and "High Chaparral", where he played the grandfather, a principle and regular role.
I spent four fortunes," said Silvera, looking back on his Theatre of Being Workshop, "and it all came out of my own pocket!" In those days, there were no such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, or any state arts councils, and few private foundation grants available to fund his type of acting and theatre development workshop. The National Endowment for the Art was formed by the Johnson Administration in 1965, modeled after a John F. Kennedy administration "blueprint" plan for federal support of the Arts. The California Arts Commission was very limited, having little funds or inclination to aid such a theatre project, so Silvera become his own "Angel," and gathered a promising young and veteran group of actors and theatre technicians, and began producing exciting plays, like "The Blood Knot", by Athol Fugard, (featuring the late black actor Rupert Cross), and "The Amen Corner". This was the first professional production of Baldwin's play after Owen Dodson, then the head of the Drama Department at Howard University, first presented it in Washington, DC.
Frank Silvera and Owen Dodson, who was a known black poet, playwright, as well as a theatre professor, were in the U.S. Navy together, doing shows, while stationed near Chicago, Illinois. It was, without a doubt, fitting and correct that Frank Silvera, an old friend of Owen Dodson, would be the first to mount and direct, in 1964, "The Amen Corner", in Los Angeles, and gave James Baldwin, his first Broadway experience as a playwright. Frank Silvera and Maria Cole, Nat King Cole's wife, produced the play, opening in New York on April 15, 1965. It ran on Broadway for a few weeks, featuring Beah Richards, Isabelle Sanford, Whitman Mayo, Gertrude Jeannette, Juanita Moore and Art Evans. Black designer Vantile Whitfield, designed the sets. Except for Silvera, most of the cast were making their Broadway debut. Frank wore "three hats" in the production, as producer, director and actor. It was to prove to be his last time on Broadway, and he also nearly "lost his shirt" with this "big return" to Broadway and New York, when the show received "mixed reviews and weak houses." A large white audience support was needed to off-set a slower black audience response, who did not traditionally, flock to Broadway during that time, especially, to see drama, and not a musical. The basic Broadway theatergoer, in the early Sixties, was, generally white, over thirty and middle class.
With the play closing before it could make any money, Frank Silvera, in debt, tired and disappointed, if not angry with New York, returned to Los Angeles. He took the lead role in James Baldwin's other play, "Blues for Mister Charlie". The West Coast production of the play was being directed by Curt Conway, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, after it had been produced on Broadway by the Actors' Studio. It was a long way from Broadway and the "coldness" of New York. It was in this 1965 West Coast production of "Blues" that I first worked with Frank Silvera, as an actor, after having known him for several years. He did the role of the father and minister, and I played one of the student protesters in the production.
I originally met Frank, in 1960-61, during the time that he was performing the lead in the Arthur Miller play, "View from The Bridge", at the old Players Ring Theatre in West Hollywood, on Santa Monica Boulevard. The Players Ring, which has since been torn down, was a very popular little theatre in-the-round, and one of the leading actors' showcase theatres in Hollywood at the beginning of the Sixties. It was run by two former actors, Paul Leavitt and Ted Thorpe, and it seemed as if every actor in town wanted to work there. I finally managed to do Lorraine Hansberry's play "A Raisin in the Sun" which ran there for almost a year in 1961.
I remember first meeting Frank, on Santa Monica Boulevard one day near the theatre. He would from time to time, ask me my name, whenever he saw me. I imagine that he was too preoccupied with his roles, film work and projects, to remember the name of a young unknown actor like me, but I remembered him or his intensity and power. I saw him on occasion at his Theatre of Being Workshop and at his actors' parties, usually held at Julius Johnson's house, an actor friend of mine and member of his Workshop. He was very close to another actor friend of mine, Herbie Jones, and one day he came by Herbie's house while I was there, carrying around a big book containing the play, "King Lear", I must find out where, he lives," he said, passionately to us, referring to the character of "King Lear". I knew from then on that this would be one of the most intensely serious actors of the Theatre that I would ever meet. His concept of "Method Acting" was, "don't act, be!" This was his Theatre of Being.
Frank Silvera went on to perform, "King Lear", at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. His stage performance of “King Lear” is widely considered one of the greatest in United States history, black, white, or whatever color. In the group of theatre people who probably influenced me the most, are my old Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon roommate, Al Freeman Jr., Isabel Cooley, with whom I made my professional stage debut, in the Hollywood production of Langston Hughes's musical play, "Simply Heavenly", in 1958. Lonny Chapman, the director, who brought me into the West Coast Playwrights' Unit of the Actors' Studio, and Frank Silvera, himself. After the end of the Summer of 1965, I brought two new one act plays to Frank at his Workshop office in the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard, in Hollywood. I had met a new black playwright, Ed Bullins, in San Francisco, who came backstage after my performance in LeRoi Jones's explosive one-act play, "The Toilet", that was playing with, "Dutchman", featuring, Paul Winfield, who had replaced, Al Freeman, Jr. I don't recall if Frank, ever did anything with Ed Bullins's plays, but ironically, it was Ed Bullins, who become the first playwright to moderate the critique after the opening reading of a new play, "Modungo", by Ray Ramirez, at the Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop, at the Martinique Theatre, in New York, on October 22nd, 1973.
It was in the beginning of Summer in June 1970, that Frank Silvera died in a strange freak accident at his house in Pasadena, California. He was killed, according to the reports, while repairing the electric garbage disposal unit in his kitchen sink. No one knows exactly what happened, since there, apparently, were no witnesses, but he died before anyone came to his assistance. His family sent his son, Frank Jr., to return his father's body to East Elmhurst, Queens, in New York. In Hollywood, we were all in shock about the tragic loss of Frank Silvera, and I personally could hardly believe that it had happened to such a vital and dynamic person, who had such a profound effect on so many of us, the younger and older actors, theatre and film people from New York to the Hills of Hollywood.
It seemed fitting and correct that a playwrights and directors' Workshop that I wished to form in New York, some three years later, should be named in memorial to Frank Silvera. Actors, Morgan Freeman, Billie Allen, and writer, Clayton Riley, agreed to incorporate the concept with me, and thus, with a group of new and known writers, directors, and, actors, it became a reality. Within four weeks, the Monday night reading and critiques at the Martinique Theatre, where I rented space, were "packed to the walls," "SRO," or standing room only. It was the same theatre where the "Off Broadway Movement" had begun years before, with the Arthur Miller plays, produced by the Circle in the Square Theatre group. I remember thinking to myself, "Well, Frank, here we go again," as I stepped on stage and announced, "good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop". It became the opening "call words" of mine, as founding director of the Workshop's Monday, and eventually, the Saturday Reading and Critique Sessions, for the next twenty-five years, October 1973 to 1997.
During the Easter Season of April, 1985, the government of Jamaica, West Indies, invited us to bring the Workshop's production of the new play, "Toussaint, Angel-Warrior Of Haiti" to the World Youth Festival Of Arts, Jam/Fest '85, in Kingston, Jamaica, April 1st to the 7th. Yes, in a cosmic sense, it seemed as if we were taking Frank Silvera's "spirit and memory" home, back to Jamaica, from whence he came, after many years, and "Toussaint L'Ouverture of Haiti", went with us. Well, it was Easter time, and perhaps, "he has arisen", as the sun slowly sets in the blues skies of the Caribbean." Je dit, au revoir, Francisco, mon bon ami. Adieu."