Al Freeman Jr., a star among a generation of black actors that emerged during the civil rights era, who made his mark in both drama and race relations with his portraits of some of the movement’s most forbidding personalities — angry young men in the 1960s plays of James Baldwin and LeRoi Jones, Malcolm X in a television drama, and the black separatist Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie “Malcolm X” — died on Aug. 9 in Washington. He was 78.
His death was announced by Howard University, where he had been chairman of the theater arts department since 2005. No cause was disclosed.
Mr. Freeman’s lucid fury and psychological insight made him a favorite of literary black playwrights in the 1960s. He made his Broadway debut in 1960 in “The Long Dream,” a stage adaptation of a novel by Richard Wright, playing a black undertaker’s son who discovers his father’s complicity in the racial oppression at the heart of small-town life.
He starred on Broadway again in 1962 with Cicely Tyson, Roscoe Lee Browne and Alvin Ailey in “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright,” a pessimistic depiction of a black family’s life in New Orleans at the end of World War II. And he returned to Broadway in 1964 to play the ill-fated pastor’s son Richard Henry in Mr. Baldwin’s play “Blues for Mister Charlie,” loosely based on the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after supposedly flirting with a white woman.
The same year, at the St. Mark’s Playhouse in the East Village, Mr. Freeman played a poet-revolutionary leading a race war in a production of “The Slave,” by Mr. Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka, which concludes with the sound of gunshots and a simulated bombing, the stage left covered in rubble. “Al Freeman Jr. is brilliant,” the critic Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times, praising his performance for its “taut intelligence.”
Mr. Freeman viewed his role as a black actor during that time as part of a larger, unfolding drama, he told interviewers. “I wasn’t down there on the front lines with Martin Luther King, or preparing myself with the Black Panthers,” he told Ebony magazine in 1993. But bringing life to characters in plays like “Blues for Mister Charlie” and “The Slave,” he added, “That was my activism.”
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