Pasadena Playhouse Honoree Diahann Carroll on Race in Hollywood

Greg Gorman

The actress will receive the 2014 Diversity Award on Sept. 21

After blazing a trail through theater, film and television for 40 years, Diahann Carroll didn’t make her debut at Pasadena Playhouse until 2002 in a production of Blue, Charles Randolph-Wright’s coming-of-age comedy set in a South Carolina town. Artistic director Sheldon Epps helmed that production with Carroll as the irrepressible and overbearing matriarch of the Clark clan.

Still irrepressible as ever, the 79-year-old Carroll returns to the Pasadena Playhouse on Sept. 21 as the theater company’s 2014 Diversity Award honoree. “Diahann has been a great trailblazer and pioneer in our field, opening many doors in the entertainment industry,” said Epps in a statement. “One could say that the Diversity Project itself is in the grand tradition of her achievements.”

What sounds like Epps engaging in Hollywood’s time-honored tradition of sychofantic hyperbole is actually understatement. Carroll sustained a career through Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, Watts riots, Rodney King, right on up through last summer’s conflagration in Ferguson. And through the years she did it with class, winning a Tony Award for playing feisty fashion model Barbara Woodruff in No Strings, an Oscar nod for Claudine, four Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe for her groundbreaking work in Julia, playing a single mother who works as a nurse in primetime’s first ever series driven by an African-American woman.

“That was difficult to come to but I expected it to be difficult to come to because we all live in the United States of America and anything that’s done racially that is a plus is a very difficult thing to accomplish until the mainstream or those who report on it or watch it understand that this too is about money,” Carroll tellsThe Hollywood Reporter.

“I really didn’t understand how much of this was not so much to do with your talent as it has to do with what the industry needs at that moment. It was most assuredly something that 20th Century Fox decided at that period of time that they wanted to do with a black actor.”

Carroll got her big break at the age of 19 when she played Myrt, a bit part in the 1954 production of Carmen Jones directed by Otto Preminger and starring Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey. Five years later she played a supporting role in Porgy and Bess, also directed by Preminger and including his ‘Carmen’ cast adding Sammy Davis, Jr. as Sportin’ Life and trading Belafonte for Sidney Poitier, with whom Carroll was romantically linked through the '60s. 

“Every 10 years someone decides to make a film or television show connected somehow to the black community. I don’t know how exciting it is,” she says about those two movies, which represent the first time a studio invested serious money in an African-American cast. “It was apparent what the film industry was at that time. It hasn’t changed a great deal. I think something what would interest us much more is the integration of all of us, Spanish, White, Yugoslavian, Brazilian, Chinese.”

Before paving the way for African-Americans in television, Carroll was active in the Civil Rights movement and was present when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, which she attended along with Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, James Garner, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman among others. While she believes progress between the races is being made, incidents like the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., give her pause.

“Has anyone been accused of shooting this child?” she asks rhetorically about the fact that the shooter, officer Darren Wilson has yet to be charged with murder. “I think you and I can both say it’s an American horror story. You can kill a child and we say what can we do? And we know if it was the other way around, a black policeman shooting a white child, that he would have been charged by now.”

The Diversity Award will be presented to her as part of the eighth annual Diversity Project gala fundraiser. Proceeds will go to outreach and education programs including Hothouse, a new play development program at the playhouse.

“This is a great honor and I’m so happy Sheldon has made this work for all these years,” says Carroll of Epps and the success of the playhouse and the Diversity Project. “They want to help in areas where young people need help to achieve their dream. It’s lovely.”

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