Low Plaza

Actor/Activist Canada Lee Brought to Life in New Play by Arts Alumna

By Jo Kadlecek

Mona Koppelman Smith

The name "Canada Lee" doesn't ring a lot of bells for most New Yorkers. Ask what they know about him and you will probably get blank stares and apologies. Mona Z. Koppelman Smith, a 1994 graduate of Columbia's playwriting program in the School of the Arts, hopes to change that.

Smith first came across Lee's name shortly after graduating from Columbia while she was working as a booking manager for the jazz singer, Carla White. Smith -- twice the winner of Columbia's John Golden Award for her plays, "Borderlands," about two women struggling to survive in Bosnia, and, "Fire in a Dark House" about German-Americans during World War I -- wanted to write a new play about the era of bebop music after World War II. She had studied with former playwriting professor Romulus Linney, and interned under Andrei Serban, internationally acclaimed director and playwriting professor in the School of Arts. Her time with these mentors "opened up another world to me," and now she wanted to write a play that explored the intersection of art and politics.

She began digging through White's musical archives and found the bebop era was primarily a response by the African American jazz community to black soldiers who had fought in a segregated army against Hitler only to come home to Jim Crow, the Klan and lynchings. Smith went to the New York Public Library to begin reading more about the post World War II world, which led her to Senator Joseph McCarthy's fight against "Communists" in the United States and a book that had a footnote about Canada Lee. Lee's name, and story, jumped out at her.

A newspaper drawing from the 1940s announces Lee's role as Bigger Thomas in "Native Son."

Having worked for four years as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald, Smith (who currently is the manager of adult programs at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) used her journalistic instincts and went to work. She began searching everywhere to answer specific questions about Lee's life and career, the Broadway productions he performed in, the films he starred in, and mostly, the events he participated in that landed his name on the famous "blacklist" created by the House of Un-American Committee, the media and the FBI in 1949.

"As a former newspaper journalist, I responded to the historical, social and political context of Canada's story," Smith says. "As a theatre professional, I was perplexed by my complete lack of knowledge about someone who had done significant work on the stage, screen and radio."

What she found in her search was a troubling lack of information. At the New York Public Library she came across only a few playbills and newspaper clippings from the 1930's and '40's about Lee's performances. From these, she pieced together general information about him: he grew up in Harlem, worked as a jockey, a boxer and then an actor who was discovered by a young director named Orson Welles as he was casting a 'Negro' production of "MacBeth" for the Work Program Administration Federal Theatre. Lee was championed by the newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan (before his famous television show) and later Hollywood called Lee for leading roles in movies such as "Cry the Beloved Country," "Lost Boundaries" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat."

Smith also learned that Lee was as popular an actor in his day as Sidney Poitier was in the 1960s and Denzel Washington is today. Yet after his death at age 45 of a stress-related heart attack in 1952, his name was lost in obscurity.

Smith could not find enough information that would link Lee to the Communist hunt of the 1950's. She knew more research would strengthen the play, but she felt she had exhausted her leads.

Then she learned of a donation of Lee's materials to the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. When she tried to access them, however, she was told the contents were too fragile for the public to handle. But Smith was determined and archivists eventually referred her to the attorney who oversaw the donation. He told her to write a letter to the donor outlining her request to review the materials for her play. Smith did, and within a few months, she received a phone call from the donor: Mrs. Frances Pollack Lee, Canada's widow.

Actor/activist Canada Lee in one of his early performances.

In November of 1998, Mrs. Lee, 79, invited Smith and one of Smith's research colleagues to visit her at her home in Atlanta and there filled in the missing pieces of Canada's life for the playwright. They learned of Lee's numerous civil rights efforts, the speeches he made at various rallies and the platform he had as an actor to address the injustices facing African Americans.

Smith recorded 19 hours of tape with Mrs. Lee, and filled three notebooks over that weekend visit, providing her with more than enough material to complete her play. And from his civil rights activism, she finally learned what had made McCarthy label Lee "dangerous."

"Frances showed me special equipment (rigged for her by family and friends) that she was using to help her computerize hundreds of Canada's documents, including all of his letters, diaries and speeches," Smith says. "She opened her home, her files and her memories to me with profound generosity; she continues to be an inspiration."

The result of Smith's tenacity and Mrs. Lee's kindness is "Becoming Something: Canada Lee," a two act play based on the actor and activist's life, a play that took Smith six years in all to complete. It was work-shopped last May in Los Angeles and now Smith is co-producing it as it opens in New York on May 9 -- the 50th anniversary of Canada's death -- at The Kraine Theater, 85 East Fourth Street, and it runs through May 26.

Smith has recruited fellow Columbia alumni to help: Traci Burwitz Mariano, MFA '93, will direct the showcase production and her husband Mike Mariano, MFA '93, will be the set designer.

Co-producer, JoAnne Meyers, is donating her public relations services and has launched a web-site. And because of her diligence in putting together the pieces of Lee's life, Smith has also signed a contract with Faber and Faber Publishing to write the first biography of Lee's life, due out sometime in 2003.

Smith is still perplexed that one of the country's greatest black actors could have fallen into obscurity. But she is equally passionate about the opportunity to tell his story, perhaps because she -- a Nebraska native who had not discovered the theatre until she was in her late 20s -- has been so affected by his courage and contributions to theatre.

"Canada's life was about taking risks. He feared anonymity because, as he said, he had to 'mean' something. He wanted to leave his mark, to do something for his community and that resonates with me," Smith says. "He was a far greater force for change than I could ever hope to be, but it's certainly why I felt it was so important to tell his story on the stage."

It is also why Smith hopes from this point on that people will know who Canada Lee is the next time they're asked.

Click for performance information on "Becoming Something: Canada Lee" or call 212-206-1515 for ticket orders.

Published: May 07, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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