Lonne Elder III, wrote 'Ceremonies in Dark Old Men'


Lonne Elder III, the playwright who wrote "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men," died Tuesday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 69.

He died "after a chronic illness," said his former wife, actress Judyann Johnson Elder.

Although Mr. Elder wrote several other plays and was also a screenwriter (of "Sounder") and a writer for television, "Ceremonies" was his major work. First produced off-Broadway in 1969 by the Negro Ensemble Company, it became as meaningful a theatrical event as Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun."

In the play, Mr. Elder told the poignant and humane story of one Harlem family in the 1950s, revealing the discontent that led an older generation to grow old before its time and a younger generation to try to circumvent the system by all possible means. At the center is Russell B. Parker, a prodigal father and failed barber who exists on memories and "ceremonies" for survival. He recounts atmospheric tales about his life in vaudeville and tells, in darkly comic detail, about his days on the chain gang.

Mr. Elder's success opened the door to other black playwrights. After him came Joseph A. Walker, Leslie Lee, Steve Carter, Richard Wesley, Samm-Art Williams, Charles Fuller and August Wilson.

He was born in Americus, Ga. After his parents died, he moved to Jersey City, N.J., where he was brought up by an aunt and uncle. By the time he was 19, he was living in Harlem. He worked as a waiter, professional gambler and telephone clerk, and entered the theater as an actor, appearing on Broadway in the original production of "A Raisin in the Sun."

He wrote poems and stories, and began his first play, drawing on memories of his uncle who had been a numbers runner in Jersey City. "Ceremonies" was given a workshop reading at the New Dramatists Committee in 1965.

When the Negro Ensemble Company was founded in 1967, Mr. Elder became head of that group's playwrights' unit and the company produced his play in its first season at the St. Mark's Playhouse. Later it moved into an extended off-Broadway run, where it received enthusiastic reviews.

After a decade of hard work and anonymity, he was an overnight success.

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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