Vinnette Carroll


It was during Gina Luria Walker and Ellen M. Freeberg’s Women’s Legacy class at the New School that I was introduced to Vinnette Carroll. Ellen Freeberg had come across Carroll’s name in the New School Archives. In doing research, I discovered that Vinnette Carroll was the first black woman to enroll in the Dramatic Workshop at the New School. She would go on to create many firsts – on Broadway, as the first black female to direct on Broadway and to receive a Tony Award. Also, in London, where she also became the first black woman to direct on the West End Stage.

During my research, I was very happy to find that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (NYPL) had been entrusted with the archives of the Urban Arts Corps. Going through their archives on Vinnette Carroll was a joy. The following biographical information on Vinnette Carroll and the Urban Arts Corps was taken verbatim from the finding aid for the Urban Arts Corps records, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – 515 Malcolm X Boulevard – New York, New York 10030. The bio they had put together is very good so I edited together excerpts for this blogpost. Special thanks to the archives at the Schomburg.

More information is available at the website I created for Vinnette Carroll as my final project for the Women’s Legacy class.

Vinnette Carroll was born in New York city, on March 11, 1922, but spent most of her childhood in Falmoth, Jamaica. During the 1930s, after Carroll and her sister had rejoined their parents in New York City, the family moved to Sugar Hill, Harlem. In 1944 she earned a B.A. from Long Island University, where she had enrolled after graduating from Wadleigh High School in Harlem. She then went on to earn an M.A. from New York University.

From 1948-1950, Carroll was a student in Columbia University’s doctoral psychology program, where she completed the required course work. At the same time, she was studying acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio. This experience prompted Carroll’s decision to change careers and she went full time into the performing arts. She also studied acting with Erwin Piscator at the New School for Social Research, and from 1954 to 1955 she studied with Stella Adler.

Ending her career as a clinical psychologist at the New York City Bureau of Child Guidance in the early 1950’s, Carroll choose to join the faculty of the High School of Performing Arts, a school in the New York City Public school system, where she taught drama from 1955 through 1966. She also acted as a consultant for the New York State Council of the Arts and was a key person on the Council’s Ghetto Arts Program, out of which the Urban Arts corps emerged. She was also a working actor during the same period, 1955-1966.

Urban Arts Corps (UAC) was founded in 1967 by Vinnette Carroll, who served as the company’s premiere artistic director. It emerged as a pilot project of The Ghetto Arts Program, a program funded by the New York state Council on the Arts. Carroll established the UAC in response to a request from John B. Hightower, the executive director of the council. The initial members of the UAC were black and Puerto Rican students aged 17 through 22, from New York City public schools and youth agencies. The objectives set forth by those creating the UAC were to: share their professional training; provide youth in ghetto areas with direct collaborative experiences with performing artists who shared their social and or cultural heritage; aid in the development of work techniques; introduce ghetto youth to materials, organizations, and artists that would enhance and improve their self image; stimulate and aid in the development of young artists in disadvantaged areas; and stimulate interest in professional and educational opportunities in the arts. These objectives were identified as being critical for addressing the cultural needs of the Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant communities of New York City as assessed in an earlier study conducted by Carroll.

One of UAC’s long term goals was to provide accessible art in black, Puerto Rican and culturally under-served urban communities that demonstrated or gave life to the slogan “Black is beautiful.” According to Carroll this art needed to be available in the streets, in parks, in playgrounds, parking lots, prisons, churches, libraries as well as in theaters and art galleries. She clarified the vision and ambition of UAC in the following statement “It cannot be gainsaid that the fight for meaningful employment, decent housing and freedom from hunger must preempt the fight for “Arts” in our list of priorities. It is, however, vitally important to utilize art and the artist as valuable tools in the struggle, as lubricants in communicating the struggle and as forces for creating a more sane, more cultivated, more peaceful life style.”

Another goal of the Corps was to develop a major repertory company that produced new plays by black playwrights and relevant plays by major playwrights that were within the mission of the company. Classical plays of enduring value, as well as plays which could be used to develop the talents of the members of the Corps and enrich the lives of the black community were also sought out to be included in the repertoire.

By its third season UAC had become multiracial in its membership, focus and productions. The Corps performed before integrated Urban Arts Corps black and Puerto Rican communities. During the 1969-1970 season the Corps’ activities included performances of: But Never Jam Today (Vinnette Carroll’s musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) as part of the Black Expo series at the city Center of Music and Drama in New York City.

This busy season included a tour of seven upstate New York cities -Albany, Buffalo, Geneva, Kingston, Newburgh, Rochester and Syracuse, which involved traveling 1700 miles and performing for a total of 60,000 persons as well as school lecture demonstrations and open rehearsals for public school audiences. During the seven cities tour, the members of UAC lived with residents of the communities where they performed.

During the 1972-1973 season UAC premiered its most successful (on and off Broadway) and enduring musical Don’t Bother me, I Can’t Cope, for which Micki Grant wrote the music. This production was Vinnette Carroll’s first Broadway production, making her one of the first women to direct a Broadway show. During this season Cope was performed in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Baltimore, San Francisco and Toronto, Canada. Other works presented by UAC during this season included: Croesus, Step Lively Boy, Defiant Island, and The Files.

In the 1975-1976 season, UAC introduced Your Arms are too Short to Box with God which it performed at the 1975 Spoleto Festival, held in Spoleto Village in Italy. UAC’s other production during this season was Theo. The 1978-1979 season was filled with the introduction of new works like Alice and When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate. Cope and Arms have proven to be UAC’s most popular plays. They continue to be performed 20 plus years since they were first introduced to the New York stage. Don’t Bother me, I Can’t Cope, was most recently performed in 1997 by the Crossroads Theater company of New Brunswick, New Jersey. Your Arms are to Short to Box with God, counts among its performers Patti Labelle and Teddy Pendagrass.

Urban Arts Corps records, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.

Vinnette Carroll as published in Theatre World, volume 18: 1961-1962. More here.