Walter Dallas, 73, an icon of Black theater and mentor to legion

The former director of New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia was considered a “genius” of American theater.

Listen 2:07
Walter Dallas

Walter Dallas passed away Sunday at age 73. (Courtesy of Barbara Silzle)

Walter Dallas, 73, a giant of African American theater and former artistic director of the Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia, died on Sunday, May 3. His husband Paul Siler confirmed that Dallas succumbed to pancreatic cancer while in home hospice care in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dallas was known internationally as a theater director and beloved as a teacher who, with his work in the 1980s and 1990s at the Drama Guild and Freedom Theatre, put Philadelphia theater in the national spotlight.

“A common theme I’ve read in the many tributes to Walter, was that he saw something in us that we didn’t see in ourselves,” wrote Philadelphia-based actor Brian A. Wilson in a Facebook tribute.

“To be an artist it is not just about what kind of work you want to make in the theater, but what kind of person you want to be in the world,” wrote Jennifer Childs, a student of Dallas who went on to co-founded the theater company 1812 Productions. “I often say that the world needs more comedy. It also needs more grace, more kindness, more people like Walter Dallas.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Dallas grew up in Atlanta, where he was “always” interested in theater. In a 2012 interview he recalled staging shows as a child for neighborhood kids using empty Coca-Cola bottles as puppets. In college he found himself at a crossroads: to either study religion at the Harvard Divinity School or theater at the Yale School of Drama. He chose the latter.

In 1983 Dallas came to Philadelphia to create the theater program at the University of the Arts (then the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts). At the same time he was directing at the Freedom Theatre in North Philadelphia, and with the Philadelphia Drama Guild at the University of Pennsylvania’s Zellerbach Theater, staging August Wilson and Zora Neale Hurston plays.

This was the era when Philadelphia theater was not as robust as it is now, when groundbreaking places like the Arden and Wilma theaters were still fledgling companies without their own stages.

Walter Dallas, Joe Papp and Bill Gunn
Dallas is pictured with Joe Papp, of New York City’s Public Theater and playwright Bill Gunn during Freedom Theatre’s 1994 run of Gunn’s “Black Picture Show.” (Courtesy of Barbara Silzle)

“Imagine back then: Philadelphia actors did not have a lot of platforms, and Black Philadelphia actors had even less platforms and access,” said Barbara Silzle, of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and a longtime friend of Dallas. “Walter, just who he was, gave access to really talented artists.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

One of the first people Dallas met upon arriving in Philadelphia was Johnnie Hobbs, a teacher and actor at Freedom. He was also one of the first people Dallas hired into the College of Performing Arts, where Hobbs would remain for 30 years. Hobbs acted under Dallas a half-dozen times over the years and called him a “genius.”

“He was extremely smart, extremely gentle, but spoke with a very firm hand. When he had to say something to you, you had to look in his eyes and he was right there with you,” he said. “I remember him telling me one time when I was running into a problem with a part: ‘Forgive yourself, and let’s go. Just forgive yourself and let’s go.’”

In 1992 Dallas left UArts to take over as artistic director of the New Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street after its founder, John E. Allen, Jr, died. During his 15-year tenure, Dallas made the theater an equity house (all-professional) and built its 300-seat auditorium.

“He brought a real professional standard to that theater, a standard that set us apart from other theaters,” said Hobbs.

Dallas created the classic Freedom Theatre production of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” an annual holiday play that became a family tradition for many in Philadelphia. “To see Black Nativity was like seeing The Nutcracker for a while there,” said Hobbs.

Dallas stepped down from Freedom and left Philadelphia for the University of Maryland, where he taught and continued to work nationally as a director for hire, often returning to Philadelphia to helm award-winning plays.

Eventually he resettled back into his hometown of Atlanta. Over his more than a half-century career he worked with James Baldwin, August Wilson, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and countless others. His last directorial work, “Autumn,” which premiered in Brooklyn at the Billie Holiday Theater in 2016, won six AUDELCO awards.

“Never the need to be the loudest or smartest person in the room. Never did he ever drop a name,” wrote Dr. Indira Etwaroo, artist director of the BHT.  “Walter Dallas is one of our true knight errants in the Black Theater, the American theater, righting wrongs and fighting for an ideal of great humanity on and off the stage.”

WURD Radio will feature a tribute to the legacy of Walter Dallas Friday, May 8, at 10a.m. Hosted by Tiffany Bacon and produced by LaNeshe Miller-White, the program will feature Zuhairah McGill, Ozzie Jones, Malika Oyetimein, Lee Edward Colston and other Black theater directors who were directly influenced by Dallas.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal