Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ellen Holly and Phylicia Rashad Pay Tribute to Al Freeman Jr at Howard University

It was a star-studded affair for the late Albert C. Freeman Jr. who was remembered at a memorial service on Monday for the roles he played as an iconic American stage and screen actor and as a deeply passionate Howard University professor.

Friends and admirers spoke of Freeman's disciplined approach to acting, a skill honed from innumerable stage and screen productions over a 30-year career. Images in a slide show that played through the service showed Freeman sharing scenes with Frank Sinatra, Sidney Portier, Ruby Dee, Burt Lancaster, Cicely Tyson and Denzel Washington.

Freeman joined the faculty of the Department of Theatre Arts in 1991, and served for six years as chairman. At the memorial ceremony, a number of current and former students shared fond recollections of Freeman. They remembered his unique style and mannerisms, including a "raspy baritone voice" that demanded honesty at all times.

In remarks during the service, actress Phylicia Rashad, who co-starred with Freeman in ONE LIFE TO LIVE, recalled filming with Freeman as "not like acting at all."

"It was more of a dance, more like jazz," she said. She noted the subtlety of his performance style and his strong emphasis to discipline. Rashad spoke of working with Freeman the 1970s play, "The Great MacDaddy."

"We were quite a group," she said of the Black actors in the 1970s stage production. "We had thrown off discipline. It was too Eurocentric. Al Freeman Jr. was the consummate artist who embraced discipline -- he let us have it. It was quite a lesson and a very good one."

During the ceremony, playwright Amiri Baraka said he best remembered Freeman for capturing the boiling racial intensity of the 1960s as an actor in Baraka's play "Dutchman."

"Al took that play and he captured that feeling that moved a lot of people," Baraka said.

Baraka also described Freeman's portrayal of Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee's "MALCOLM X" as "absolutely perfect." While acknowledging the breadth of Freeman's accomplishments, Baraka said Freeman still faced racial limitations in his career.

"If not for the fact that he was African American, he would be known throughout the world as a great actor," Baraka said.

Frenchie Davis, one of Freeman's former students, closed the tribute with a heartfelt rendition of "I Know Who Holds Tomorrow."

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