James Spruill, an accomplished actor and Boston University professor who died of pancreatic cancer in December, was honored last weekend at the Plaza Theater by family, friends and students. (Banner file photos)
In the same small theater where James Spruill once directed and acted in plays, friends of the late Boston University professor brought him back to life, reminiscing about his skillful acting, outsize personality and attentive mentoring, which groomed thousands of college students and raw recruits into performers over more than 40 years.
Spruill moved from New York to join the Theater Company of Boston, where he conceived the New African Company and co-founded it in 1968. At the same time, he was pursuing graduate studies in theater at BU and announcing on “Say Brother,” the WGBH-TV show now called “Basic Black.”
In the 1970s, the fledgling New African Company moved into a former flower market in the South End, space that was just being converted into the Boston Center for the Arts. Gustave Johnson, a co-founder of the black theater group, recalled one of the first tasks was removing — with sledgehammers and pick axes — a concrete block from the center of the floor, where an industrial broiler once sat.
“I think this was the first theater that was open and producing plays” in the center, Johnson said.
Now called the Plaza Theater, about 150 friends, relatives and former BU students filled the elevated seats Saturday to commemorate the productive and spirited life of Spruill, who died at 73 of pancreatic cancer Dec. 31 at the Roxbury home of a son, Robert Patton-Spruill. The tributes often paired him and his wife, Lynda Patton, who died last August.
“Lynda and Jim jumped the broom in this space,” Johnson said of the couple’s novel wedding in the theater where they jointly operated the New African Company, now based in Roxbury but without its own stage.
The company’s productions included plays written by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Ed Bullins of Roxbury and Leroi Jones, the multi-talented author who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka.
“Jim maintained throughout his life this great admiration for Leroi Jones,” noted Kay Bourne, who reviewed many of the plays for the Banner.
Bourne was one of several admirers who pointed to Spruill’s remarkable acting range, having played Othello and his nemesis Iago in productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
“He played my mother in ‘Blood Wedding,’ ” by Federico Garcia Lorca, said Carolyn Pickman, now a casting agent. “He was in full drag. This was in the early 1970s.”
Adrienne Hawkins, artistic director of Impulse Dance Company, on occasion did choreography for the New African Company.
“They themselves were so much fun to work with,” Hawkins said, referring to the couple. “It was never a job. It was always fun.”
Spruill also did some acting in films. He had a part in “Amistad,” Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie about a revolt on a slave ship and the legal battle afterwards. He also acted in “Squeeze” and “Body Count,” which were filmed by his son Robert.
In 1976, Spruill joined the faculty of BU’s School of Theater, where he taught thousands of students before he retired in 2006. The last few years he commuted from a log cabin on 40 wooded acres in Winchester, N.H. He lived there in retirement.
Several of his BU students, black and white, have found fame in Hollywood, theater or television. One is actress Alfre Woodard. Another is Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment.
Others came under his tutelage at the New African Company. Johnson read aloud a letter from Paul Guilfoyle, who stars in the television series “CSI,” who noted he was a son of South Boston who performed in the black company. He once played a slave overseer, prompting Spruill to quip, “I guess all the good slave parts were taken.”
The black theater group at BU was once unable to find a director for the play “For Colored Girls ,” by Ntozake Shange, until Spruill stepped in and tapped a white student. “I said, ‘Do you think that’s appropriate?’ ” recalled Don Trujillo, the student director. Spruill had a quick answer. “You’re directing ‘For Colored Girls.’ ”
Spruill and Patton molded many other young people through their open door policy at their Roxbury home, where lively discussions raged in the kitchen. “Jim and Lynda used to argue using lines from other people’s plays,” Johnson recalled. Some young men moved into the house, informally adopted into the family.
Born in Baltimore, Spruill first headed north on a scholarship to attend Goddard College in Vermont. He started his acting career in New York, performing at times alongside Morgan Freeman and Al Pacino. At BU, he was the first recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship for graduate students. As a professor, he received the Distinguished Faculty Award from BU’s College of Fine Arts in 2003.
His first marriage ended in divorce. Besides Patton-Spruill, he leaves a son Joshua Spruill, a financial planner in Boston, and four grandchildren.
A number of relatives traveled from Baltimore to attend the “life celebration” Saturday.
In the room next door, the Black Box Theater, a biographical video ran in a continuous loop on a flat screen TV, showing photographs of him as a young man, on stage, on a horse, in Vermont and many with Patton. One video clip shows the couple dancing at a party. The soundtrack sampled his favorite music — funk.
“I intend, to the best of my ability from now on, when speaking of Jim and Lynda, to remove the past tense,” Johnson said as the celebration ended in the intimate theater he and Spruill helped create.
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