Veteran stage director Lloyd Richards, who died June 29, was known for being soft-spoken. But when he tried to help me understand the world he grew up in, his voice was barely audible. "I finally realized that, after going to the movies as a young person for years, I had never seen two black people kiss," he said.
Seated in the living room of his townhouse in Manhattan, Mr. Richards explained why directing Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking drama "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway in 1958 was so meaningful to him. "This was not about being the first black director to work on Broadway," he added. "This was about showing that black people could be in love."
A good stage director's work is as invisible to most audiences as the inner lives of black America were to the rest of society during those years.
Richards, who started as an actor, analyzed play scripts to discover the reasons behind each character's actions and each playwright's message. His sensitive, naturalistic direction of Ms. Hansberry's award-winning play, the first on Broadway by an African-American woman, shattered misconceptions about racial differences.
Set in a one-bedroom tenement apartment in early 1950s Chicago, it chronicles the Younger family's struggles, as four adults and a 10-year-old boy battle poverty, racism, failed dreams, and rats. The late John Fiedler, who portrayed Lindner, the play's only white character, recalled that "for many people, it was like looking through a keyhole. They'd never seen a family like this on stage before."
And if that were Richards's only contribution to American theater, it would make him stand above most other directors. But his skill at nurturing new talent also helped to develop other significant writers, chief among them one of the greatest playwrights of all time: August Wilson.
While running the Yale Repertory Theatre and the O'Neill Center, Richards discovered Mr. Wilson. The young, untrained writer's first work, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," benefited from the same careful shaping and pruning that Richards contributed to Hansberry's masterpiece. Following "Ma Rainey" in 1984, Richards directed six more of Wilson's remarkable outpouring of 10 plays about the African-American experience in America, each one set in a different decade, including "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson."
Richards said: "I knew these people. I know these people. They don't have 'positions.' They have jobs. And their lives all have one thing in common: money. That is the 24-hour problem. We don't have enough."
He drew from his childhood in Detroit to understand characters and to help playwrights tell their stories. While Richards was still in grade school, his father died, and his mother lost her sight. One of four boys, he used his only sister as his model in making Hansberry's central character, Ruth Younger, a three- dimensional woman, "the woman in the family who pays the price for helping others achieve their dreams. That was my sister, Joyce. She would put down her life for us."
Ruby Dee, who played Ruth on Broadway and in the film version opposite Sidney Poitier, recalls Richards telling her that he needed her to play Ruth. "And I was so angry with him at first, because I thought, she's just some ordinary woman. I wanted to play the sister, because I thought she was more interesting. Lloyd showed me how Ruth held that family together. Now, I'm glad he pushed me into that role."
His directing career garnered awards, stretched over six decades, and even included segments of television's historic "Roots: The Next Generation."
And as future generations celebrate Hansberry and Wilson, the invisible contribution of Richards will not be apparent, because it is woven into the final, printed versions of their plays. Audiences, actors, and, most important, writers, will not fully realize the debt they owe to someone whose name they may not even know.
Richards, a gentle, modest man, was devoted to honoring the core elements a writer yearns to express – he knew how a story should start, should be told, and how it should end. Like all great stories, his had a memorable conclusion – he died on his birthday.
• Tony Vellela has been covering theater and the performing arts for the Monitor since 1970.