Barbara Ann Teer, 71, Dies; Promoted Black Arts
July 25, 2008
By BRUCE WEBER
Barbara Ann Teer, who gave up a promising career in commercial entertainment to concentrate on developing African-American culture in Harlem and who founded the National Black Theater there, died on Monday in Harlem. She was 71.
She died of natural causes, said her daughter, Sade Lythcott.
Ms. Teer, who first went to Harlem in the 1960s as a teacher at Wadleigh Junior High School, became, over four decades, a Harlem nurturer, a Harlem cheerleader, a Harlem developer and a Harlem fixture.
A dancer and actor who appeared frequently in New York productions, on Broadway and off, she had grown tired of being offered stereotypical roles by white producers and became a fierce and eloquent advocate for black artists and a black culture independent of the white-dominated mainstream.
She announced her philosophy in a 1968 article in The New York Times, writing a call to arms to black artists in general and black theater artists in particular to declare and define themselves.
“For those brothers and sisters who are still tied to whitey and have not yet seen the need to shape their own black cultural art expression,” she wrote, “let’s look at one of whitey’s institutions: the American theater, an establishment developed, owned and operated by him for the sole purpose of making money.”
“We must begin building cultural centers where we can enjoy being free, open and black,” she added, “where we can find out how talented we really are, where we can be what we were born to be and not what we were brainwashed to be, where we can literally ‘blow our minds’ with blackness.”
For Ms. Teer this was not idle rhetoric. That year she founded the National Black Theater, an institution dedicated to the performing arts, community advocacy and the appreciation of the history and lifestyle of black Americans. The theater, which bought its own building at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue with financing she arranged, produces shows, lectures and other special events, presents art exhibits, conducts workshops and holds classes.
As executive director, not only was Ms. Teer in charge of fund-raising and administration, she also wrote and directed for a music, dance and theater troupe that appeared at Lincoln Center and on the public television program “Soul.” The company toured in Bermuda, Guyana, Haiti, South Africa and Trinidad, as well as in the United States.
Ms. Teer was especially drawn to the Yoruba people of Nigeria, which she visited many times and from which she brought Yoruba artists to New York to create works for the theater building.
Ms. Teer was born in East St. Louis, Ill., on June 18, 1937, and moved to New York City after earning a bachelor of arts in dance from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Broadway, Ms. Teer was dance captain in “Kwamina,” a 1961 show choreographed by Agnes de Mille, and appeared in 1966 as an actor in William Inge’s comedy “Where’s Daddy?”
She had an early, brief marriage to the actor and comedian Godfrey Cambridge, who died in 1976. In addition to her daughter, who lives in Manhattan, she is survived by a son, Michael Lythcott, also of Manhattan.
After receiving honorary doctorates in the mid-1990s from the University of Rochester and the Southern Illinois University, she referred to herself, and was known to colleagues, as Dr. Teer. “She had a deep appreciation for the historical significance of the African presence in the Harlem community,” said Howard Dodson, director of the New York Public Library‘s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “She touched thousands of lives here, bringing to some the consciousness of their African origins that they’d either forgotten or were never in touch with, and providing for others a self-affirmation that was needed as they tried to navigate the waters of the American nation state.”