Laurie Carlos, an actor who appeared in the original production of Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed poetic drama “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” and a playwright whose work expressed the inner lives of black women in the United States, died on Dec. 29 in St. Paul. She was 67.
The cause was colon cancer, her daughter, Ambersunshower Smith, said.
Ms. Carlos joined the cast of “Colored Girls” in 1975 when it was gestating at bars on the Lower East Side. She followed it on its journey from the New Federal Theater to the Public Theater to the Booth Theater on Broadway, and onward to a television adaptation seen on the PBS series “American Playhouse” in 1982.
As the Lady in Blue, she was one of seven characters telling stories of love, loss and the patriarchy in a fusion of dance and declamation that Ms. Shange called a “choreopoem.” Ms. Carlos enacted the poetic monologues “Abortion Cycle #1,” “I Used to Live in the World” and “No More Love Poems #3” and appeared in ensemble pieces throughout the play.
In 1977 The Village Voice gave an Obie Award to Ms. Carlos and the rest of the cast, as well as to Ms. Shange and the play’s director, Oz Scott.
After appearing in Ms. Shange’s “Spell #7” and Edgar White’s “Les Femmes Noir” at the Public Theater, Ms. Carlos branched out into writing, directing and performance art. Her plays “Nonsectarian Conversations With the Dead” (1985), “Organdy Falsetto” (1987) and “White Chocolate for My Father” (1990) were abstract, associative dramas that fused politics and poetry as they delineated the predicaments of black women.
From the outset, she was clear about her aims. “In America, in the early ’60s, the voices of black people were very minimalized,” she told Bomb magazine in 1993. “I wanted to be able to use my voice as an artist for political reasons as well as aesthetic reasons. The two are not very far apart.”
She was born Laurie Dorothea Smith on Jan. 25, 1949, in Manhattan, and grew up in public housing on Avenue D on the Lower East Side. Her father, Walter, was a drummer. Her mother, the former Mildred Randall, was a postal worker.
In Ms. Smith’s early teens she began acting with Mobilization for Youth, a social-services agency on the Lower East Side. After graduating from the High School for the Performing Arts, she studied with Lloyd Richards at the Negro Ensemble Company, where she worked as an usher.
Harry Belafonte noticed her work and hired her to train as a casting agent at his production company, Belafonte Enterprises.
She took the name Carlos from a man with whom she had a short romantic relationship. His full name is unknown. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by three sisters, Donna, Riki and Neveley Smith; a half sister, Tanya Foster; three half brothers, Warren and Walter Smith and Iya Mariano Malango; and three grandchildren.
In the late 1980s Ms. Carlos joined Robbie McCauley and Jessica Hagedorn to form Thought Music, a performance-art group that created the updated minstrel show “Teenytown” at Franklin Furnace in 1988.
Ms. Carlos won two New York Dance and Performance Awards, also known as the Bessies. The first came in 1989 for her performance in the two-part multimedia production “Heat,” which she directed with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the founder of the dance company Urban Bush Women. In 1993 she was given a Bessie as creator and choreographer of “White Chocolate for My Father,” presented at Performance Space 122.
In 1998, Ms. Carlos moved to St. Paul to become an artistic fellow with the Penumbra Theater Company. She played an important role in encouraging new playwrights and performers through Naked Stages, a fellowship program based at the Pillsbury House Theater, and through the theater’s Late Nite Series, which featured new work by artists from New York and Minnesota.
She gave her final performance this past fall at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater in St. Paul, narrating “Queen,” a play about gun violence and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“She put the world as she knew it onstage with real style and understanding,” Lou Bellamy, the founder of Penumbra, told The Minneapolis Star-Tribune after her death, “and she lived her art.”
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