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Production shots from the past rarely communicate the power of the performance lost. Those of the African American actress Gloria Foster, who died September 29 at the age of 64, do. The image of her 1977 Clytemnestra, eyes flashing and nails sharpened, is terrifying. A 1965 photo of her Medea, imposing and sensual, telegraphs the fullness of her interpretation. One immediately understands why critics at the time, striving to capture her essence in words, sound like they’re describing national monuments or military actions. (“Majestic” is one word that often comes up.) It’s also clear from these pictures why producers quickly saw past her skin color and knew she was made for Mother Courage, Volumnia, Ranevskaya, Yerma.
If the current generation of theatergoers knows Foster at all, it’s from Having Our Say, the 1995 Broadway play spun from the bestselling memoir by the black centenarian sisters, Sadie and Bessie Delaney. It was Foster’s first major New York stage role in five years, and she would never have another. Her heyday, unsurprisingly, spanned the 1960s and 1970s, a creatively fervent time when producers like Joseph Papp fearlessly experimented with progressive casting. By the time Reagan took office, such liberal artistic practices waned and the roles dried up. Foster was often out of work, not for months, but years. (Recent film audiences will remember her as the Oracle in The Matrix, toying with Keanu Reeves like a wise old cat batting about a preternaturally brain-dead mouse.)
Foster’s frequent absence from the stage was partly of her own making. Like many of the characters she played, Foster was uncompromising and ambitious for greatness. Her taste in roles was aristocratic. Comedies and musicals were anathema. Television and film couldn’t contain her. From her early days, if the roles weren’t Shakespeare, they at least had to be Shakespearean in size.
“It just never entered my mind that I was not to aspire to” the great dramatic parts, she said. “And it never entered my mind that someone would say no. If I did not have that expectation, I could not have stayed in the business.” Conviction of that sort from a black actor in America, even a vastly talented one, is rare, perhaps naive, certainly courageous. But Foster’s talent was nurtured in an artistically and socially principled time. She held on to the principles even as the era that spawned them died. Productions of classics (and the audiences for them) dwindled, the plays and roles got smaller, the vision shrunk. Foster stayed big, even until the end.