HERStory Matters: Actress and director Billie Allen was born on January 13, 1925.
Wilhelmina Louise Allen was born in Richmond, Va. Her mother, the
former Mamie Wimbush, was a teacher; her father, William Allen, was an
A ballet and opera devotee, she idolized Marian
Anderson and attended her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial after
the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to
allow her to sing at Constitution Hall. After graduating from high
school, she attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) before
moving to New York in the mid-1940s.
Bille began her career by
dancing in Broadway shows including “Caribbean Carnival,” a 1947 musical
revue; a 1952 revival of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” the Virgil
Thomson opera with a libretto by Gertrude Stein; and “My Darlin’ Aida,” a
1952 adaptation of Verdi’s opera.
She studied with Lee
Strasberg at the Actors Studio. As an understudy in the landmark
production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959), she had
occasion to go on as Beneatha Younger, the forward-looking sister of
the play’s misguided protagonist.
She played a maid to a
theater critic (Henry Fonda) and his playwright wife (Georgann Johnson)
in Ira Levin’s comedy “Critic’s Choice” (1960), and had a small part in
“Blues for Mr. Charlie,” James Baldwin’s anguishing 1964 civil rights
drama drawn from the murder of the black teenager Emmett Till in 1955.
Of Ms. Allen’s many Off Broadway roles, the most prominent was Sarah,
the central character of “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” Adrienne Kennedy’s
1964 study of the nightmarish torments of a young black woman.
Her final Broadway appearance, in 1969, was in “A Teaspoon Every Four
Hours,” a comedy about a Jewish widower whose son falls in love with a
black woman. Co-written by and starring the comedian Jackie Mason (Ms.
Allen played the young woman’s mother), the show earned Broadway
notoriety for its absurdly extended preview period — 97 performances —
following which it closed after opening night.
Ms. Allen was
one of the first black performers with a recurring role on a network
series, appearing (sometimes uncredited) as a member of the Women’s Army
Corps on “The Phil Silvers Show,” the CBS military comedy that starred
Silvers as the scheming Sergeant Bilko.
Billie also grew to be
in demand for television ads, appearing in commercials for Pampers
diapers and cleaning products like Rinso and Tide.
with the actor Morgan Freeman and others, she was a founder of the Frank
Silvera Writers Workshop in Harlem — a tribute to Silvera, an actor,
director and influential teacher who died in 1970 — whose attendees have
included Ntozake Shange, Charles Fuller and Samm-Art Williams.
Ms. Allen was a longtime friend of Ruby Dee (whom she directed in 2001
in “Saint Lucy’s Eyes,” an Off-Broadway drama about abortion). Her
second husband was the composer and arranger Luther Henderson, with whom
she helped develop “Little Ham,” a musical based on Langston Hughes’s
play of the same name about street life in Harlem.
Billie Allen passed away in December 2015, at the age of 90.