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Vernell Lillie

Founder and artistic director of Kuntu Repertory Theatre, Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie was born on May 11, 1931, in Hempstead, Texas. Lillie attended Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she earned her B.A. degree in speech and drama. In 1958, she completed a six year graduate study at Texas Southern University. She earned her M.A. degree in English from Carnegie Mellon University in 1971, and her D.A. degree in English from Carnegie Mellon University the following year.

In 1974, Lillie established the Kuntu Repertory Theatre with the intent to examine Black life from a sociopolitical-historical perspective. Lillie used drama to educate while entertaining. The theatre naturally developed into a supportive community for black writers, actors and artists. Since its establishment, the theatre has sponsored countless activities which highlight the African American community. Lillie has directed many productions including: The Buffalo Soldiers Plus One, Little Willie Armstrong Jones and Whispers Want to Holler.

Lillie has been the recipient of many prestigious awards including the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award; the Outstanding Award for Women in the Arts by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; and the 2003 Career Achievement in Education Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

Accession Number

A2008.108

Sex

Female

Interview Date

8/15/2008

Last Name

Lillie

Maker Category
Middle Name

A.

Occupation
Schools

Phillis Wheatley High School

Crawford Elementary School

Dillard University

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Vernell

Birth City, State, Country

Hempstead

HM ID

LIL02

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Texas

Favorite Vacation Destination

Egypt

Favorite Quote

Did You Understand?

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Pennsylvania

Birth Date

5/11/1931

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Pittsburgh

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Gumbo

Short Description

Stage director Vernell Lillie (1931 - ) was founder and artistic director of Kuntu Repertory Theatre, which produced drama that entertained while examining Black life from historical, social and political perspectives. She won the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award and the Outstanding Award for Women in the Arts from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

Employment

Julia C. Hester House

Phillis Wheatley High School

Kuntu Repertory Theatre

Favorite Color

Purple, White

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Vernell Lillie's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Vernell Lillie lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Vernell Lillie describes her mother's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Vernell Lillie describes her mother's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Vernell Lillie talks about the community in Brazos Bottom, Texas

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Vernell Lillie remembers her maternal grandfather's home in Bellville, Texas

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Vernell Lillie recalls her childhood visits to Bellville, Texas

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Vernell Lillie describes her father's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Vernell Lillie describes her father's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Vernell Lillie talks about her family's education and occupations

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Vernell Lillie describes her parents' professions

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Vernell Lillie recalls how her parents met

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Vernell Lillie describes her parents' personalities and who she takes after

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Vernell Lillie describes her earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Vernell Lillie recalls her childhood in Hempstead, Texas and Houston, Texas

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Vernell Lillie describes her experiences at Crawford Elementary School in Houston, Texas

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Vernell Lillie recalls her teachers at Crawford Elementary School

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Vernell Lillie describes her involvement in the University Interscholastic League

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Vernell Lillie recalls her early interest in theater

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Vernell Lillie remembers the notable African American educators in Houston, Texas

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Vernell Lillie recalls her teachers at Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston, Texas

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Vernell Lillie remembers participating in the I Speak for Democracy oratorical contest

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Vernell Lillie recalls her early involvement with civil rights

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Vernell Lillie describes the Sweatt v. Painter case of 1950

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Vernell Lillie talks about the influence of her education on her life and career

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Vernell Lillie recalls Thurgood Marshall's speech during Sweatt v. Painter, 1950

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Vernell Lillie describes her extracurricular activities at Phillis Wheatley High School

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Vernell Lillie describes her decision to pursue acting

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Vernell Lillie recalls her decision to attend Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Vernell Lillie talks about her parents' attitudes towards her theater career

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Vernell Lillie recalls the productions at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Vernell Lillie describes her work at the Julia C. Hester House in Houston, Texas

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Vernell Lillie talks about her theater productions at Julie C. Hester House in Houston, Texas

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Vernell Lillie recalls the beginning of her teaching career at Houston's Phillis Wheatley High School

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Vernell Lillie talks about the first African American play she produced

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$5

DAStory

5$8

DATitle
Vernell Lillie recalls Thurgood Marshall's speech during Sweatt v. Painter, 1950
Vernell Lillie talks about the first African American play she produced
Transcript
Can you give us a sense of what it was like to watch, to be in court when Thurgood Marshall was trying a case [Sweatt v. Painter, 1950]. I mean, do you have, can you kind of describe what took place (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Yeah, I can remember the physical something. Grover Sellers was kind of heavy and puffy face and it was sweltering hot and I don't remember which month it was, but it was hot in that courtroom. And Thurgood Marshall, and I think it must be my imagination because he had to have been hot too 'cause he was in a suit, but I swear in my memory and it must be what I want to remember, that he did not seem to have perspired at all. And he would start his speech talking in the kind of level and then he would come down and use a little piece of vernacular something, and it was just the most awesome something, and I'm telling you now, I have never been the same after experiencing him in that courtroom. I knew then and there that my life would forever be molding, changing, creating and understanding that whatever I have, it's my responsibility to give back. It, he was, it seems to me he was six feet tall. It was just, and it was the most flowing kind of process, and the thing that he had was dignity, not poking fun at anybody, but it was the cause that he was dealing with. You know, it was not making whites feel ashamed of themselves, it was presenting a case that this young man [Heman Marion Sweatt] had a right to have an education with the tax dollars, and so, that was another gift that I think, that I hope I acquired from him, because it is so easy to be arrogant and to be insulting, you know. And it was so very clear that somehow or another all he wanted to do was let that group there and the world know that these are human beings who are entitled to a quality education by your own state dollars that you're paying, and it was not a piece in which I need to ridicule you or be sarcastic toward you, and sharp tongued toward you that these are the facts as I see them, and these are the grounds from which I am stating what I am saying. And I hope, I hope, I really hope, but sometimes people will tell me I have a sharp tongue, but I do hope that I respect the personality. I don't have to agree with what you believe, but I need to know that when I am presenting to you that which I want, I don't have to demean you, because you are a product of whatever this society has structured, and you have somehow believed it, and I think that fortunately for me, I saw hardworking black men and women all my life from the time I was five years old and I saw them working, and working, and working, and then I saw them lose things and I still saw them maintain their dignity, and Thurgood Marshall just helped reinforce that. It's a wonderful world.$Now what, what year is this when you start teaching?$$Fifty-six [1956].$$Nineteen fifty-six [1956].$$Um-hm.$$Okay.$$And I stayed at Wheatley, I guess I stayed at Wheatley until I left in '69 [1969].$$Okay. Now when did--along the way did you start become more keenly, did you, well, at what point along the way did you start really drawing from black literature and culture?$$I gave an assignment in my class and I can't remember the little guy's name and he's dead now, and he came in, the assignment was Baraka's--Dante's "Inferno" ['The Divine Comedy,' Dante Alighieri].$$About what year is this now?$$Oh that's--$$Sixty-one [1961] (simultaneous)?$$--(simultaneous) it has to be somewhere around like '64ish [1964] or something, '65ish [1965], and demanding that I do a black play, and so he had, had gone to the library on his own, because I certainly didn't introduce Baraka's [Amiri Baraka] 'The Toilet' to him, and he wanted me to do 'The Toilet.'$$Well, that's in, in high school?$$I said, "I'm sorry I have two children that I have to help my husband educate, so I cannot produce Baraka's, 'The Toilet.'"$$'The Toilet' is pretty rough.$$So he kept harassing me. So then I did 'In White America' [Martin Duberman]. So he came back to me that night, he said, "I think you did a very fine job with it," he said, "but, you know, if you had been black and published this as a play, they would have told you that this is nothing but a collage of historical characters talking and moving through history. So now that you've seen whites on your stage, in 'White America,' why don't you do a black play?" And he said, "By the way, 'In White America' it's not any different from what you've been doing all along. You have been using those political collages and statements with your daughters as they are trying to get people to vote." He said, "So Duberman [Martin Duberman] has not done anything different from what you've been doing for the last ten years, dramatic collages and that's not a play. There's no structure in the traditional process that you taught me as a play, so why don't you do a play?" So I, that weekend after the play closed, I think I must have read twenty-five plays and the last one I picked up was guess what, 'Day of Absence' [Douglas Turner Ward] and 'Happy Ending' [Douglas Turner Ward], so that was my absolutely first black play that I produced.$$Now this is in, this is at Phillis Wheatley?$$This is at Phillis Wheatley High School [Houston, Texas], 'Day of Absence,' and that's the photograph that you see out there by my desk. That guy, Andrew, Michael Andrews [ph.], is still acting in D.C. [Washington, D.C.] and he was awesome.$$And this is a play by [HistoryMaker] Douglas Turner Ward.$$Douglas Turner Ward, and I have never since turned back.