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#3426: Katherine Dunham : comments from Ray Carrier

From: Ray Carrier <raycadien@hotmail.com>

	Katherine Dunham was a trail-blazing pioneer who, perhaps more than anyone 
else was responsible for opening up Broadway, Hollywood and Las Vegas to 
black entertainers.  When she first began performing in New York in the late 
30s, there had been practically no serious roles for black performers in the 
major centers for the performing arts in the USA other than in demeaning 
roles (I think the only exception had been Porgy and Bess a couple of years 
earlier.)  She became not only the director of the largest dance troupe in 
the world, but was also the lead dancer and choreographer for her 
performances, and later several members of her troupe, such as Talley 
Beatty, went on to become famous as dancers and choreographers in their own 
right.  (I have a copy somewhere of a resume which a student wrote up for 
her some time ago, talk about impressive!  Its possible to find videos of 
some of the classic movies she performed in, such as Stormy Weather, in 
major outlets like Blockbuster.)

	Unfortunately, she is less well known than she should be - virtually no one 
in the younger generation of musicians today, for example, for whom making a 
video featuring choreographic performances is standard procedure - is aware 
that she was really one of the first artists to create and design such dance 
acts.  This is mainly because when she was at her peak, in the 40s, 50s and 
60s, the USA was still segregated and her troupe was unable to tour in most 
parts of the country, particularly the Deep South, without considerable 
difficulty (it was impossible to find suitable hotel accommodation for her 
large troupe of 30 to 40 members.)  Once when they performed in Tennessee to 
a standing room audience, the seating arrangement was such that only whites 
were sitting in the front of the audience, while blacks had to be satisfied 
with watching the show from far in the back of the hall.  After it was over, 
to a standing ovation, Ms. Dunham came out to address the crowd, and she 
told them that she could tell that everyone had greatly enjoyed her show, 
but that she would never return there again until she knew that the 
situation was changed so that the seating arrangement would be totally 
integrated.  As a result of these problems, she took the troupe on the road 
internationally, performing in 57 countries over 25 years, where she was 
always widely acclaimed, while in her own country very few people had the 
opportunity to see live acts of her performances.  Another time in Brazil, 
hotel reservations had been made in advance, but the management tried to 
change their mind when they found out that the performers were all black.  
They quickly retracted their objections when Ms. Dunham threatened to throw 
herself out of a window and create an international scandal.  After this 
incident the Brazilian government passed a law banning racial segregation in 

	I consider having had the fortunate opportunity of meeting and getting to 
know Katherine Dunham as one of the highlights of my life.  Actually this 
came about almost my accident more than 5 years ago, and before then, like 
most persons of my generation or younger I had never even heard about this 
formidable lady.  A couple of years earlier, when I was a working as a Human 
Rights Observer with the OAS, I had struck up a friendship with a fellow 
Canadian, Cameron Brohman, who for almost 5 years, including the most 
repressive period after the military coup of 1991, was the caretaker of her 
home in Haiti, and it was through him that I got to meet her.

	Ms. Dunham was born in Chicago in 1909;  her father was a black 
businessman, while her mother was a white Canadian (whose mother was a 
Native American).  She had one older brother named Albert (who she 
considered to be the smart one in the family.)  He was for several years a 
professor of philosophy at Howard University and was a promising protege of 
one of the top philosophers in the world at the time (I believe it was 
Alfred Whitehead) until he died prematurely during the 1950s.  Her husband, 
John Pratt was a Canadian who had been the set and costume designer for 
their shows.

	She first came to Haiti as an cultural anthropologist in 1935 on a 
fellowship grant to study local dance.  In order to better understand and 
learn from first hand experience, and to gain the confidence and friendship 
of her subjects, this young black American woman did not hesitate to 
socialize with people in all sectors of society, including the urban poor 
and peasants, at a time when the local hierarchical society was even more 
strictly separated than it is today, which did not endear her to the 
snobbish elite.  She participated in numerous Voodoo ceremonies and before 
she completed her project underwent the initiation process, which she later 
wrote about in Island Possessed.  Among the many close friendships she 
cultivated at the time was a young politician named Dumarsais Estime, who a 
dozen years later became President of Haiti.

	Later after she had become an international celebrity, she regularly 
returned to Haiti for extended stays, frequently bringing the members of her 
dance troupe along with her to recuperate between their many extended tours 
and take the time to develop new routines for future performances.  She 
retained her interest in Voodoo and was initiated on numerous occasions to 
become a mambo.  On one of her earlier visits she was accompanied by her 
former personal press promoter, Maya Deren, who also got interested in 
Voodoo, later writing The Divine Horsemen and also making some movies about 
her trance experiences.  She later became a celebrity in her own right and 
is now considered the mother of independent film makers.

	Ms. Dunham took the opportunity during these visits to purchase various 
properties throughout the country (she still has several in prime locations, 
such as high above the city of Port-au-Prince at Bouthieres and above 
Carrenage in Cap Haitien which she would like to sell).  On one of these 
properties, in the heart of Carrefours in the western suburb of the capital, 
she commissioned Albert Mangonese, the Haitian architect who directed the 
renovation of La Citadelle fortress near Cap Haitien and who has been called 
the Frank Lloyd Wright of the Caribbean, to construct her Residence, which 
turned out to be one of the most lovely homes in the country.  Often when 
she was living there during the 60s and 70s, many tourists would come to 
witness sensational Voodoo ceremonies at the large beautifully decorated 
peristyle located right behind her house.

	She also owns the large wooded property across the road from this which in 
the mid-70s she leased to a French entrepreneur named Coquelin.  This land 
was rumored to have been the location of the house belonging to General 
Leclerc and his wife Pauline Bonaparte during the time of the French colony. 
  A large modern hotel was constructed there which included 44 villas, 11 
swimming pools, a gourmet restaurant, discotheque and casino, and it was 
named Habitation Leclerc.  During its heyday, it was advertised as a 
hide-out for the rich and famous and catered almost exclusively to the 
international jetset society, including European nobility and famous rock 
stars such as Mick Jagger.  When it operated during the late 70s and early 
80s, 2 of its villas were priced at $1500 a night, and the minimum rate was 
$350 a night, extremely expensive for those days, and it was rated as one of 
the top 10 hotels in the world.   Unfortunately after the AIDS scare killed 
tourism in Haiti in the early 80s, it was forced into bankruptcy and looters 
rampaged through the place, ripping out and stealing anything worth 

	Today Ms. Dunham would like to convert this property, which contains one of 
the few remaining rain forests in the region, into what could be the model 
Botanical Garden of the Caribbean and renovate the buildings which were 
formerly villas to house a Cultural Center for the Arts.  Several years ago 
a team of botanists from the University of Puerto Rico conducted a study of 
cataloging its incredibly diverse plant life (for years it was spared from 
robbers cutting the trees for firewood because the stream running through it 
was considered sacred to Voodoo worshiper) and concluded that it was ideally 
suited for this purpose.  Later the Kew Gardens in London sent a couple of 
young botanists to continue this work, and contacts were established with 
the Fairchild Gardens in Miami and the New York Botanical Gardens who 
expressed an interest in participating in this project.  Former President 
Aristide was also highly supportive, but regretted that his government was 
unable to provide any funding for assistance.  However due to the inability 
to raise any funds to move it forward, the project remains unfortunately 
dormant, and a large group of squatters have moved in to occupy the ruins of 
the former villas and will soon ruin the property unless action is taken 
soon.  (Ms. Dunham is aware that I am most interested in helping her find a 
way to get this project off the ground, and we would greatly appreciate any 
assistance in the form of advice on how to write up a proposal for funding, 
which specific foundations to contact, etc.  Anyone interested in getting 
involved with this project should contact me.  Although I will be absent 
from home for the next few weeks, I usually live in Washington DC.)

	The first time I met Ms. Dunham was in early 1995, when after a long 
absence, she returned to Haiti at the personal invitation of President 
Aristide.  He wanted to formally thank her at the Palace on behalf of his 
government for the assistance she had provided by her 1992 hunger strike (47 
days when she was 83 years old!) in giving greater international recognition 
to the plight of the boat-people and the discriminatory policies of the Bush 
administration during the time following the military coup.  She returned 
again a year later when he presented her with the highest medal of honor the 
Haitian government can award to a foreigner, and while there she was also a 
guest of honor, along with Celia Cruz and another famous older Cuban female 
singer, at a major gala ceremony held in Petionville.

	Last year, after being urged by several old friends, including Harry 
Belafonte and his wife Julie (who used to dance with her), Ms. Dunham moved 
back to live in New York City.  When I visited her a few weeks ago, I saw 
that she is still strong and vigorous for someone of her age, and she spends 
part of her time working on writing her autobiography.  Movie director 
Jonathan Demme, of the Oscar-winning movies Silence of the Lambs and 
Philadelphia, and Debbie Allen, choreographer of the Broadway musical Fame 
and producer of the recent movie about the slave ship Amnistead, have 
indicated an interest in making a movie soon about her life story.

	On June 22 Ms. Dunham will be 91 years old but for her advanced age she is 
still going strong and continues to keep busy.  Just after this celebration 
she will as usual be a lecturer at the 2-week seminar for Dance Masters 
which she has regularly sponsored in St. Louis for the past 30 years, whose 
participants come from all around the world.  Then later on in the middle of 
the summer she will be the guest of honor at a major week-long dance seminar 
instructing her dance techniques to young dancers which will take place at 
the City Center of New York, where dancers from mainly the New York/New 
Jersey region will participate (the center can hold approximately 2,000 

Ray Carrier

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