Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Gordon Heath, African American Expatriate

While in Paris this past April, we took a tour which featured African American expatriates in Paris. One of the expats I highlighted was Gordon Heath. A few weeks ago I received an email from Gordon's 18 year old cousin, Alyssa. Tomorrow I will post my interview with her.
In the meantime, here is some additional information about Gordon Heath.
Seifield Gordon Heath, was an African American expatriate, stage and film actor, musician, director and producer. He founded the Studio Theater of Paris, was a co-owner of the nightclub L'Abbaye and a fixture on the Paris cabaret scene. Gordon was born on September 20, 1918 in Manhattan's San Juan Hill district in New York. He was the only child of Harriette (Hattie) and Cyril Gordon Heath,

Gordon Heath began performing at a young age. As a child he sang in St. Cyprian's Church choir 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 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. Heath's performance was widely acclaimed, and he was lauded as "the next Paul Robeson."

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.

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.

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 on the Left Bank 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.

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.

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.

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.

After Payant's death in 1976 (Payant died of cancer at the age of 52) 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.

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 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.

information courtesy of: Gordon Heath Papers (MS 372). Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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