Playwright Steve Carter. Photo via Debbie McGee.
By Clyde Santana
Professionally known as Steve Carter [sic], he was an American playwright, best known for his plays involving Caribbean immigrants living in the United States. Mr. carter received the Living Legend award at the 2001 National Black Theatre Festival. He was Victory Gardens Theater’s first playwright-in-residence beginning in 1981, and also served as playwright-in-residence at George Mason University. Clyde Santana, DG member and Ambassador in Norfolk, VA contributes this tribute to his friend and mentor.
Mr. carter was a Dramatists Guild mentor for 42 years, joining on June 16, 1978.
On September 15, 2020, America lost a very precious treasure, Horace “Steve” Carter. Quietly, he slipped out of this world in a state far from the familiar ground of his NYC home. Steve was 90 years old. He would’ve been 91 in November. My wife Gail Davis and I were looking forward to traveling to Houston one more time to see an old friend and teacher who had influenced our writing and commitment to teach in several underserved African American communities in Norfolk, Newport News, Philadelphia, Lincoln City, and Atlanta for over 35 years.
Steve was a proud man. One who spoke his mind about the condition of African American theatre, but always expressed himself in a kind tone that he used when speaking about such a struggling, and largely unknown, shunned, or just forgotten community of writers and theatres. In his over 50 years of touching people’s lives in the creation of new plays penned by unknown writers until he was too old and sick to move around, Steve continued to share his knowledge with those who would listen to his expertise, and to the wonderful stories that only Steve could tell others about, from his perspective, as a person who had been there.
Many writers and historians will write about the “public Steve,” but this humble article reflects a personal relationship with one of African America’s and American theatre’s great playwrights and mentors of many famous writers.
Gail and I initially met Steve in 1979 when he taught the Negro Ensemble Company’s (NEC) Playwrights Workshop. It would be the last workshop at the NEC that he would teach. I still remember our first day meeting him at the Theatre Four located on 55th Street and Tenth Ave in NYC.
We entered the room around 2 pm. A man wearing a leather cap, short coat, and scarf was busy sweeping the floor. Suddenly, a well-dressed woman entered. Very outspoken in her demeanor, she demanded to know if the floor sweeper had seen Steve. The sweeper replied, “I’m sure he will be here” and continued to sweep. She then pressed in a condescending tone by adding “Let me know when he gets here.” The reply, “You’ll be the first to know.” At that point, I turned to my wife and said, “this is interesting.” She replied, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I didn’t answer, but in a few minutes, I felt sure that we’d get the answer.
A few more playwrights strolled in and took their seats at an old table in the room where the workshop was being held. The short, stocky sweeper placed the broom up against the wall, approached the table, smiled, and said, “welcome to the workshop, I’m Steve Carter and I’ll be your teacher.” I looked over in the corner where the polished, stately women stood. She appeared to shrink in stature and became noticeably quiet. I don’t believe she stayed more than a few minutes.
Steve proceeded to talk to the playwrights, get the new members to introduce themselves to the older members and quietly started. At this point, writers like Billy Graham, Bill Francis, Ernest Wiggins, Carmen Lott, and Laura Fowler entered and took their seats.
Gail and I began our journey that would last up until mid-April 2020—Gail’s last phone conversation with Steve before she passed in June 2020 and my last time talking with him on his phone. I remember him saying to me, “I’m not afraid to die, I’m looking forward to it. I just hope that somebody remembers me.” I assured him that he wouldn’t be forgotten. He had too many people who loved him. Steve was very sick, had lost his ability to move around, his right hand no longer worked and he didn’t want to go down to eat in the dining room of the nursing home because he didn’t want people to see him dropping his food because he wasn’t left handed.
Before his health declined, Steve was a very meticulous person. He was a great chef in his own right; one who cooked wonderful meals. It was a joy to eat his food and we even got the opportunity to sit in the “mini throne chairs” that the NEC used for one of their early plays.
Steve had a vast collection of books and record albums. He listened to classical, blues, and jazz music. You always got a treat when he played a particular record that he liked and told you stories of his NYC, Chicago, and his European experiences. And after we ate, Steve always wanted to go to get desert. He had a sweet tooth for exquisitely prepared pastries.
Whether we were in Lefrak City (off of Horace Harding Pkwy in Queens, NY), at his apartment at George Mason University in Virginia where he was a Writer-in-Residence for two years in the early 1990’s, or staying at our apartment in Virginia in 1989 when he came to hold a week of workshops for Terrance Afer-Anderson’s “On Cue Theater” where Gail and I [taught] a free African American writers workshop, Steve was always the down to earth, caring gentleman who occasionally infused his unique display of wit into each visit.
I still remember the story he told us while staying with him at his apartment for several days in Northern Virginia about the professor at George Mason University who asked Steve where he received his degree. Steve replied, “The University of the Negro Ensemble Company.” A smile graced his face. We laughed continuously that night as Steve continued to tell stories about his life and the actions of others in the world of African American theatre.
Steve had great respect for Tennessee Williams. He made it a point to say that Tennessee was very outspoken about theatres not changing a playwright’s work. Steve loved his playwright, director, and actor friends. He always spoke about Esther Rolle, Joyce Sylvester, PJ Gibson, Ed Cambridge, Horacina Taylor, Barbara Montgomery, Judy Dearing, Samm-Art Williams and many more. And he loved and cared for his sister, June Bentham, and his nephew, Steven Bentham, who lost his fight with a debilitating sickness but looked out for his “Uncle Steve” in Houston. I remember Gail and I driving Steve over to their home to hang out and have dinner on more than one occasion in Houston. The Benthams were a very hospitable, down to earth family who had made their fortune owning several McDonald’s restaurants in Houston. To the very end of Steve Bentham’s life, he was still trying to look out for his aging and sick uncle and wanted him to be in a better nursing home.
Steve wasn’t too excited about attending big events. He didn’t have a big ego. I can remember when the National Black Theater Festival was giving him a lifetime achievement award. Steve called Gail, told her about the award, then politely said, “I don’t think I’m going. I’m not feeling well.” Gail said, “Oh Steve, you have to go. Everybody will be sad if you don’t show. If you go, we’ll meet you there in North Carolina and stay the whole week.” That was news to me. Funds were tight for us during that time, but we somehow managed to scrape up the money, stay for the whole week, and hang out and party with our gracious friend and mentor. And Steve enjoyed himself, had a blast, just hanging out with all his old friends, but still took time to catch up with us each day and night and give us a lot of his invaluable time and companionship. We weren’t the big playwrights, but that didn’t matter to Steve. He’d always tell me when I complained, “You have to think small. Small casts, little set design, and a beautifully written play. The actors will do the rest. Remember, we’ve only had the right to read and write for about 140 years. Playwrights want to see and hear their plays.”
I remember the final [staged readings] of his student writers before he left the NEC in 1981. I was amazed at the people he convinced to be in the plays, [each] were read twice that spring. It was like a mini O’Neill. I remember him telling Gail, I did the best I could to get your play cast, but don’t get upset. I was only able to get Esteban Vega to direct your piece and Barbara Montgomery, Adolph Caesar, Samm-Art Williams, Jack Landrón, Lori Hayes, and Reginald Vel Jackson to read the parts. Then he smiled. The other playwrights, Bill Francis, Ernest Wiggins (E.Ernest), Carmen Lott, and Ramona King received the same level of actors reading their plays.
I didn’t know it at that time, but Steve would soon become our first playwriting teacher and also our mentor that we would enjoy for as long as he lived. Steve’s relationship with us didn’t stop there. Two musicals Gail and I co-wrote enjoyed Steve’s advice even though musicals weren’t his thing. He even came to see them in Philadelphia. And when Al Simpkins asked Steve if he would be a part of the Langston Hughes Writers Workshop planning symposium that occurred in 2002 at Lincoln University, Steve was there to offer his support.
In 2008, although his health was deteriorating, he returned to Philadelphia to co-teach a one-day workshop at Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts with Gail and me. After the workshop, we sat around on the third floor of Al Simpkins’ brownstone and recorded Steve’s memories of a time when Black theatre in New York was struggling to exist. Yet Steve talked about the support from the various white foundations that helped theatres like the NEC to grow.
I will never forget those three days at Al’s home, and how excited Gail was to help organize her mentor’s handouts and presentation at the theatre that gave our work a life after Steve opened the door for us to study a craft that few writers had the chance to participate in. [We felt we were] in the Negro Baseball League of Theatre that operated in the middle of the African American community.
Having a mentor like Steve inspired Gail and me to push on, start free playwriting workshops in the Norfolk, Newport News, and Virginia Beach area. We encouraged other African American writers in those communities to write and get their work produced. I don’t think I would have ever had the chance to teach a playwriting course at Norfolk State University, and the Attucks Theater for eight years [if not for Steve.]
Then, a miracle happened, and Zeiders American Dream Theater gave us a home in 2017. Theatre has a way of looking out for its people, and Artistic Director Bart Kuebler asked me to direct their American Dreamwrights program, which I now co-direct with Jean Klein.
And I served as a resident writer and instructor in Philadelphia—in a community like where I grew up—since my introduction to Al Simpkins by Woodie King Jr.
All this is because an old playwright like Steve said, “Don’t quit. Keep teaching. And if you can’t do anything else, give the members of your workshop a reading of their new work when you can. You don’t need much to do their work.”
This was the man. This was his vision. I know there are many successful, famous playwrights who enjoyed being mentored by Steve, but deep down inside I believe Steve had a soft spot for me, “Skeeter,” the struggling playwright from the ghetto who didn’t have a lot but yearned to tell a story and hoped that somewhere someone could help him to craft it.
That was the Steve Carter that Gail and I grew to know. Gail’s not here anymore. She preceded him in death by three months. But I know somewhere in heaven, they’ve reconnected. And I can almost hear Gail saying, “Steve, we have to talk to God about all the young playwrights’ plays we left behind.” And Steve smiling and nodding, “When it’s time.”