Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Gordon Heath Papers
Seifield Gordon Heath, African American expatriate, stage and film actor, musician, director, producer, founder of the Studio Theater of Paris and co-owner of the nightclub L'Abbaye, was born on September 20, 1918 in Manhattan's San Juan Hill district in New York. 1 He was the only child of Harriette (Hattie) and Cyril Gordon Heath, but had a half-sister, Bernice Heath. Hattie Heath was a second generation American of African and Indian lineage. Cyril was born in Barbados and worked as a steward for the Hudson River Night Line. In his later years Cyril was a devoted public servant, active in the local YMCA, neighborhood associations, and church sponsored groups. Gordon attended elementary and high school at the Ethical Culture Society School in Manhattan. In the early 1940s he graduated from Hampton Institute in Virginia.
Gordon Heath began performing at a young age. As a child he sang in St. Cyprian's Church choir, won a state-wide drama competition, and played both the violin and the viola. Heath began focusing his attention on acting during his teens, in part to escape his father's aspirations and expectations for his musicianship. In 1938, he began writing and performing radio sketches for WNYC. Heath began training with a group of African American actors during the same year under the direction and guidance of Marian Wallace.
Heath acted in several plays under the direction of his childhood friend Owen Dodson while attending Hampton Institute in the early 1940s. In 1943 he landed his first Broadway role, playing the "second lead" in Lee Strasberg's South Pacific. In 1945, while working as a radio announcer, Heath won the lead role in Elia Kazan's Deep Are the Roots, a controversial Broadway "race play." Heath played the role of Brett Charles, an African-American war hero who returns home following WWII to find that the "fight for democracy" has had little effect on race relations in the Jim Crow South. The play had a fourteen-month run on Broadway that began in 1945, and had a five-month run in London in 1947. Heath's performance was widely acclaimed, and he was lauded as "the next Paul Robeson."
Deep Are the Roots provided Gordon Heath with new opportunities and possibilities. Prior to the play's London run, Heath made his directorial debut in Family Portrait, an off-Broadway play in which he also played the lead. Later, while in London, Heath became enamored with Europe, a position that was reinforced after he returned to the U.S. and realized that racism prevented him from gaining access to the types of roles he desired to perform. However, while in the U.S., he met the man who would become his partner, Leroy Payant, an actor from Seattle. In 1948 he left the U.S. and began working in London via Paris, but was often passed over in favor of British actors, particularly for coveted roles. As he later explained of his trials and tribulations in London, "each time, for each part, it was a hustle." 2
Seeking to establish "continuity in the theater," he instead turned to the more friendly confines of Paris where Heath and Payant opened up L'Abbaye, a nightclub where the two performed folksongs, spirituals and the blues in a quiet and intimate setting. L'Abbaye was initially created as a means for the two men to make a living between roles. However, it quickly became an important institution in Paris, particularly among expatriates and artists, and remained in operation for 27 years. During the 1950s Heath appeared in a number of radio and television programs throughout Europe. He also appeared in a number films, including Sapphire, the Nun's Story, and the Madwoman of Chaillot, among others. Also, he and Payant recorded their music and toured throughout Europe and the Middle East. Heath remained active in theater, especially in London, France and the U.S. However, he still found it difficult to secure the artistic freedom and types of roles that he desired. As Helen Gary Bishop explained:
The French were only casting him black roles and, in their nationalistic zeal, would not give an American, however talented, a directing job - certainly not in any subsidized theater. There were even quotas on the number of American and English plays, which could be done in the commercial theater. And in England it appeared that he was being typecast as a West Indian. 3
In the 1960s Gordon Heath attempted to alleviate these restrictions by founding the Studio Theater of Paris (STP), an English speaking theater workshop and group comprised largely of expatriates from England and the U.S. During its ten years in existence, the STP, under Heath's direction, produced such plays as the Glass Menagerie, After the Fall, The Skin of Our Teeth, In White America, The Slave and the Toilet, and Kennedy's Children. Heath not only directed these works, but also created the playbills and posters, worked publicity, and made arrangements with American Church of Paris, the institution that housed most of the group's productions. STP also served as forum for lectures from visiting professors, critics, and round table discussions. Later, STP helped arrange for Martin Luther King to preach at the church. The STP's list of productions and activities are significant in that they express the highly charged racial and political climate of the period. However, STP did not limit itself to "art for politics' sake." Regardless, much of the support the group had received from the American Church of Paris waned following the departure of its progressive leader. Afterward, the church began preaching moderation, and cut the STP off from the support that had previously helped make it viable.
In the 1970s Heath began performing more frequently in the U.S. In 1970 he returned to U.S. for five months to play the lead in Oedipus at the Roundabout Theater. Later in the same year he and Payant performed Dr. Faustus in Washington D.C. Heath noticed the changes happening in American Theater, and in particular, Black theater, some which pleased him, others which did not. "Black theater was a reality, off and off-off Broadway were healthy, and government subsidies and funding seemed abundant." 4 However, Heath also felt that the younger generation of Black actors had made the mistake of rejecting their social past, the political past, and the theatrical past. Still, by the mid 1970s Heath was largely encouraged by what he saw happening in the U.S.: "The fact of Negroes playing with public approbation, a general public...playing these parts we never thought we'd get a crack at (such as Lear) is so exciting I can't tell you." 5
During this period Heath worked and corresponded with several key players of the Black Arts Movement, including director Woodie King and writer A.B. Spellman. After Payant's death in 1976 and the subsequent closing of L'Abbaye, Heath began appearing more regularly in the U.S., and even moved back to New York for a period of time in the late 1970s and early 80s. While remaining active in theater, he also helped organize a community group and a rent strike to improve conditions in the building in which he had grown up. After, he returned to Paris to live, but continued performing on both sides of the Atlantic. His final performance, a production of Wole Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel done in conjunction with choreographer Pearl Primus, whom Heath had worked with over forty years earlier, was staged at the University of Massachusetts in 1987. The University's Press also commissioned the publication of Heath's memoirs, a project he worked on in Paris until his death on August 31, 1991. While Heath was unable to finish his memoirs, Deep Are The Roots: Memoirs of a Black Expatriate, the University of Massachusetts Press published what he had completed in 1992.
Chronology of Gordon Heath's Life