Di­a­hann Car­roll re­flects on a long ca­reer of stage and screen

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Kris­sah Thomp­son Cheriss May, Spe­cial to The Washington Post

Di­a­hann Car­roll, at 81, wel­comed a vis­i­tor to her “fab­u­lous” suite at Washington’s Wil­lard In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel — mar­ble bath­room, din­ing ta­ble for eight, stun­ning views of the city. Af­ter a busy day, she had dressed down for com­pany, in a plush bathrobe, gold slip­pers and round sunglasses.

She is glam­orous in that old Hol­ly­wood way but also kind, first ask­ing about you from be­hind those for­mi­da­ble shades. Then she sat and de­murely crossed her legs, bring­ing to mind a phrase that has become a per­sonal mantra in her ninth decade: “The legs are the last to go.”

Car­roll men­tioned that she was cel­e­brat­ing a birth­day in a few days but laughed at her­self when she couldn’t re­mem­ber quite how old she will be.

“Ag­ing,” she said, toss­ing her honey-col­ored hair, “is a full-time job.”

As a young woman and into her mid­dle years, Car­roll had a ca­reer of firsts. The first black ac­tress to win a Tony, for the 1962 mu­si­cal “No Strings,” in which her fash­ion-model char­ac­ter was in­volved in an in­ter­ra­cial ro­mance. The star of “Ju­lia,” the first sit­com cen­tered on a black char­ac­ter who was not a ser­vant — she played a wid­owed nurse and mother — for which she won a 1969 Golden Globe and was the first black ac­tress nom­i­nated for a comedic-lead Emmy.

Then in 1984 came a star turn on “Dy­nasty” as Do­minique Dev­er­aux, an el­e­gant songstress and busi­ness­woman whom Car­roll de­clared at the time would be tele­vi­sion’s “first black bitch.” She in­structed the prime-time soap’s writ­ers to “just pre­tend that I’m a white male . . . and write the char­ac­ter from there.” And there, yet an­other break­through, Amer­ica get­ting to watch a black woman com­plain­ing about the off-brand caviar she had been served.

More than three decades later the feisty Dev­er­aux still pops up in In­ter­net memes, be­decked in se­quins, her master­ful side-eye lend­ing silent com­men­tary to cur­rent events.

She left the show in 1987, in her early 50s. And then? Well, you know how it goes for an ac­tress. The juicy roles dry up. The in­ter­est wanes. For her part, Car­roll is in the pe­riod of life when one re­flects on legacy.

Her mis­sion in Washington was to pro­mote a new doc­u­men­tary film project, “Sul­livi­sion: Ed Sul­li­van and the Strug­gle for Civil Rights,” a look at the leg­endary mid­cen­tury va­ri­ety show host and the ground­break­ing AfricanAmer­i­can artists who shared his stage at a time when im­ages of blacks on tele­vi­sion were rare.

Car­roll was a guest on the show nine times, and it bol­stered her ca­reer, much as it did for Harry Be­la­fonte, Diana Ross, Louis Arm­strong, Ste­vie Won­der, Richard Pryor and many more. In­ter­viewed for the film, Be­la­fonte cred­its Sul­li­van with help­ing to shift Amer­i­can cul­ture and pre­pare the nation for the com­ing civil rights move­ment by ex­pos­ing his view­ers to a broad range of black artists.

Car­roll’s daugh­ter, Suzanne Kay, is co-pro­duc­ing the not-yet-com­pleted film with Sul­li­van’s grand­daugh­ter, Margo Spe­ciale, and Car­roll joined the film­mak­ers on a panel Satur­day at the 5th an­nual March on Washington Film Fes­ti­val to dis­cuss it.

On the panel, Car­roll seemed over­come with a mother’s pride. She kissed her daugh­ter on the cheek and de­clared the work she is do­ing on the film, “just won­der­ful.”

Later, from her ho­tel suite, Car­roll again made clear that she was here be­cause she wants to help her daugh­ter. “I’m just mom. This is her work and I must re­spect it,” she said with de­ter­mi­na­tion.

In other words: Car­roll did not want to steal Kay’s spot­light. In separate con­ver­sa­tions, both she and her daugh­ter al­luded to the strains that her fame placed on their re­la­tion­ship. Car­roll was mar­ried four times and had a few well-pub­li­cized af­fairs, in­clud­ing one early in her ca­reer with Sid­ney Poitier. The ro­mances, travel and in­ten­sity of Car­roll’s trail­blaz­ing ca­reer of­ten left Kay, her only child, to be reared by others. But in re­cent years, they have grown closer.

And the mother is clearly touched by her daugh­ter’s in­ter­est in the strug­gles she and her peers faced early in their ca­reers — an era when the white Bri­tish singer Pe­tula Clark faced a spon­sor back­lash for a TV spe­cial in which she af­fec­tion­ately touched Be­la­fonte’s arm.

Sul­li­van, who has gone down in his­tory for in­tro­duc­ing Elvis Pres­ley and the Bea­tles to mass au­di­ences, also re­ceived threat­en­ing let­ters from irate white view­ers who dis­liked the way he fea­tured black artists. And Car­roll was not in­vited to at­tend a cast party for “No Strings” — the mu­si­cal she starred in — be­cause the party’s host­ess was com­fort­able with her chil­dren en­coun­ter­ing African Amer­i­cans as ser­vants but not as glam­orous, fur­wear­ing star­lets.

Some of the ac­tors of Car­roll’s gen­er­a­tion re­main busy, such as Cicely Tyson, 92, who plays Vi­ola Davis’s mother on the ABC hit “How To Get Away With Mur­der.” Car­roll, though, has opted for a dif­fer­ent pace. She was slated to play the role of Mama in a 2014 Broad­way re­vival of “Raisin in the Sun” but dropped out be­cause the re­hearsal and per­for­mance sched­ule was too weary­ing. She hi­lar­i­ously noted in a PBS in­ter­view a few years back that the health-con­scious Tyson thrives on veg­etable juices but “I love chardon­nay.”

“I had to get clear that I’m en­ti­tled to have a pe­riod of time when I can say, ‘I don’t think I want to do that,'” she said shortly be­fore show­ing her vis­i­tor out. “I hope no one feels that I’m be­ing but I do know that I’ve been work­ing my whole life.”

She is con­tent now to sup­port her daugh­ter’s work — though she in­tends, as al­ways, to look fab­u­lous while do­ing it.

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