A theater of longing

Monday Book Review

November 01, 1993|By Michael S. Weaver

SORROW IS THE ONLY FAITHFUL ONE: THE LIFE OF OWEN DODSON. By James V. Hatch. University of Illinois Press. 362 pages. $34.95. OWEN Dodson gave his life to literature and theater. An academician for most of his career, Dodson wrote and/or directed more than 300 shows, published two novels and countless poems in magazines and anthologies, wrote numerous reviews and traveled widely, making friends of artists here and abroad.

Some of these artists received far more recognition than Dodson did, but this fine biography is a testament to Dodson's immense presence in African-American arts and letters.

Dodson's devotion to theater was reverent and steeped in the classics. Late in his life, when he was ill and on crutches but still teaching, he began a class in theater history and criticism by acting out roles from Greek and Latin plays. His great gift for teaching was bestowed on people now famous, including Toni Morrison, Nobel winner, and Debbie Allen, dancer, actor, director and producer. Dodson enhanced the lives of thousands of students from the time he graduated from Yale in 1939 until his death 44 years later.

Dodson was gay, a matter which Mr. Hatch handles with honesty and sensitivity in a biography that took 10 years to produce. Mr. Hatch's writing captures Dodson's cherubic humor and occasional irascibility with precision and affection.

During his 25-year tenure at Howard University, Dodson maintained an apartment in Washington at 1813 16th St. It was a magical repository of books and art work on two floors. In the 1954-55 theater season, Howard's drama department staged James Baldwin's play "The Amen Corner," which Dodson directed. He invited Baldwin, who stayed at 1813 16th, eating and imbibing until Dodson's meager savings were depleted. In utter frustration, Dodson ordered Baldwin out, inspired nonetheless by Baldwin's energy and fluency.

"Powerful Long Ladder," Dodson's first collection of poems, was acclaimed, but Dodson did not write much poetry in the '50s, which was the time when his work was anthologized widely. In 1968, Richard Eberhart was moved to introduce Dodson at a Dartmouth reading as "the best Negro poet in the United States."

As a director and playwright, Dodson's strength lay in spectacle. His productions were lavish. In the summer of 1943, he directed a pageant, "New World A-Coming," for the Negro Freedom Rally in Madison Square Garden. It had several principals and 76 "lesser bodies." Twenty-five thousand people attended. This same grandeur in directing never translated into a tightly structured drama from Dodson's hand, as Mr. Hatch notes. However, Dodson wrote many plays, notably "Divine Comedy" and "Bayou Legend."

The biography's title derives from Dodson's last days, filled with bitterness exacerbated by drinking. He sought listeners wherever he could find them. He sought love. In the wee hours of the morning, he called friends to read them new lines of poetry. Some listened with a true friend's devotion. Others hung up. One friend, after a particularly long soliloquy, heard Dodson ask: "Chil', who am I talking to?"

Michael S. Weaver's play, "Elvira and the Lost Prince," opens in December in Chicago. A native of Baltimore, he teaches at Rutgers.

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