RICHARD BERRY HARRISON
1864 - 1935
Richard Berry Harrison was the son of Thomas Harrison and Isabella Benton who escaped into Canada out of slavery in the 1850s. Harrison was born near Nelson Park in London on September 28, 1864. As a young boy, Harrison sold copies of the London Advertiser outside the city's theatres so he could chat up visiting actors. He took in performances whenever he had enough pocket change for the price of a cheap gallery bench. Afterwards, he would corral his friends into a barn near his parents' home so they could watch him re-enact the melodramas he had seen.
The family left London for Detroit in 1880. After the death of his father, Harrison attended the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art, funded by jobs as a bellhop and a waiter. By the time he was 27, Harrison found he could make a small living reciting poetry and dramatic monologues on the legitimate stage.
Broadway came calling for Harrison in late 1929 when playwright Marc Connelly, a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, asked the 65-year-old actor to play the role of God in his new play The Green Pastures. Based on the first two books of the Old Testament, this all-black production was one of the most controversial plays of the decade. Religious groups were poised to condemn the work as blasphemous while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples was certain it would be an insult to American blacks. Friends eventually persuaded Harrison to take the part.
The Green Pastures opened on February 26, 1930 at the Mansfield Theatre on Broadway. As "de Lawd", Harrison made his entrance in a Prince Albert suit and a wide-brimmed felt hat, reportedly modeling the character after Pastor Blount from Beth Emmanuel Church in London. The Green Pastures would run for 16 months and tour for an additional three years. Harrison himself would appear in over 1,000 of those performances, non-stop. In 1931 Harrison was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for his contribution to "the edification of blacks."
On October 28, 1934 the touring company of Green Pastures arrived in London for three performances at the Grand Theatre. During that time, Harrison was given the freedom of the city and was the guest of honor at the London Rotary Club. Between shows he toured his old boyhood haunts along the Thames River as old friends and reporters looked on.
Richard Berry Harrison died on March 14, 1935, after 1657 performances as "de Lawd".