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Paramount Theatre Brings Blacklisted Black Actor To Life

Author Mona Z. Smith spent years researching black actor Canada Lee.
Author Mona Z. Smith spent years researching black actor Canada Lee. Photo Credit: Submitted
Canada Lee was an actor and political activist.
Canada Lee was an actor and political activist. Photo Credit: Submitted

PEEKSKILL, N.Y. -- Cold Spring resident Mona Z. Smith is about to bring black actor Canada Lee back to life.

The Saturday, March 12 reading at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theatre in Peekskill, funded by White Plains-based Arts Westchester and read by actors from Esperance Theater Company, follows Lee's story from acclaimed rising star to penniless "traitor" after being blacklisted.

Smith said she first learned about Lee, who died at 45 in 1952, when she was studying for a master's degree in theater at Columbia in 1994 and came across a tiny footnote in her Cold War studies that said five artists died during this period as a result of the McCarthy-Era entertainment blacklist. "I recognized every name on the list except one: Canada Lee," she said, which got her curious, leading her on a 10-year odyssey.

Lee, who was described as the greatest black actor of his generation, achieved Broadway stardom in Orson Welles's "Native Son," and movie praise in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," among others.

Smith's years of research eventually led her to Lee's widow, whom she visited in Atlanta. It was there she hit the jackpot, learning all about what a groundbreaking artist and dedicated human rights activist he was before being publicly shamed.

Smith first wrote a play about Lee in December 1998 which was workshopped at the Lee Strasberg Institute in West Hollywood and premiered at the Kraine Theatre in New York City in May 2002, the 50th anniversary of Lee's death.

That led to a biography, "Becoming Something," which has been optioned for film; currently the book and the original play are in development for television.

And, now, for lucky Hudson Valley residents, The Canada Lee Project is having a staged reading in Peekskill, which springs from more than two decades of Smith's research and writing.

"Canada Lee was an idealist, an eloquent, courageous, vigorous voice of dissent," she said. "He spoke for all people who did not enjoy the full privileges of American democracy. That is what made him so dangerous to those in power who wanted to maintain the status quo. And that's exactly why his story needs to be told today.

"We need more of his kind of courage if we want to be a force for change in our world."

The event is at 7:30 p.m. with a wine and cheese reception at 6:30 and a Q& A following the performance. Go to www.paramounthudsonvalley.com/ for more information.

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