'Black Moses' of theater recalled Theodore G. Cooper slain at school in College Park

September 27, 1996|By Consella A. Lee and Dan Thanh Dang | Consella A. Lee and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Theodore G. Cooper, who was known for his musical productions focusing on black life, could pack the house, be it a hall, a museum or a church.

"I kind of likened him as the black Moses, in terms of leading the black community to theater," said the Rev. Robert Powell, pastor of St. Philips Episcopal Church in Annapolis.

Cooper, 57, a theater arts professor at Howard University and well known in Annapolis theater circles, was killed Tuesday in a double murder-suicide outside Hollywood Elementary School in College Park. Cooper had gone to the school with a friend, Cynthia Shaifer, to meet her daughter's teachers and learn about the coming school year. Her estranged husband, Terry Shaifer, shot her and Cooper before turning a 20-gauge, single-barrel shotgun on himself, police said.

Friends recalled Cooper as the consummate theater man, a man on a mission.

"I found that Ted was a really multitalented person with a great deal of energy who was always trying to portray to the community the importance of the black theater and the contribution of African-Americans to the theater," said Powell, who knew Cooper for about 15 years. Cooper staged several plays at the church. Churches often served as his venues.

The works performed by his former "Nu Wave" theater company and his Pamoja ensemble company included "Bessie Smith," "Selma," "Purlie," "The Wiz," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "West Side Story."

Although Cooper mostly staged the works of others, he did pen a play of his own, "The Lion and the Fox," about his former father-in-law, Walter Mills, who in the late 1930s filed suit against the Anne Arundel County Board of Education seeking equal pay for black teachers. Mills was represented by Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP.

Tony Spencer, a lieutenant with the Annapolis Fire Department, who knew Cooper for six years, portrayed Mills in the play.

Cooper "was very creative. He would try things differently. He wouldn't just go along with the traditional way. He wanted to try different ways of looking at life," said Spencer.

Cooper, also an actor, often portrayed great historical figures such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Supreme Court Justice Marshall.

"To know Ted was to know this incredible idealist who had so many irons in the theater fires," said the Rev. Fredric Muir, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Annapolis.

Cooper staged about 20 plays at the church, said Muir, a former board member of "Nu Wave" and Cooper's friend for about a decade. "He could take an area that nobody else saw as with theater potential and turn it into it," said Muir.

But the one thing Cooper could not do was achieve the same popular recognition for his serious plays that he received for his musicals, said Muir.

"People would just go see his stuff and go 'wow,' but for some reason it just wouldn't catch on," said Muir. "He tried every way possible to make it into the Annapolis art scene and couldn't do it."

"The whole Pamoja thing didn't last very long. I think that was his last little shot," said Muir.

But then, he said, Cooper "just always went for the big dream."

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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