Mona Z. Smith

  Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee
by Mona Z. Smith

(Faber & Faber; ISBN: 0571211429)

Mona Z. Smith is the author of Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee (Faber & Faber Inc., August 2004), the first biography of one of America's greatest Black actors. She is also a playwright, and her works for the stage have been produced in theatres in New York, Virginia, and California.

Becoming Something, a work of fiction based on the life Canada Lee, enjoyed a successful run at The Kraine Theatre in New York City in May 2002. The play also had a workshop production in May 2001 at The Marilyn Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. Borderlands, a meditation on women, war, and ethnic cleansing, was the winner of the national Berilla Kerr Prize and was produced at the SoHo Rep in Manhattan; The Rose Theatre in Los Angeles; LiveArts in Charlottesville; and had a reading as a finalist in the national DramaRama competition in San Francisco. Smith studied with the world-renowned director Andrei Serban at Columbia University, where two of her plays won CU's John Golden Award, including Fire In A Dark House, which explores the persecution of German-Americans during World War I. A fragment of her most recent play, Dream Of A Dead Samurai, based on events in the lives of Japanese-American soldiers during World War II, played at The Women's Project and Productions in Manhattan in March 2004.

A native of Winnetoon, Nebraska, population 62, Smith started her professional writing career at age 16, penning baseball stories for the sports page of the local weekly newspaper. After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a journalism degree in 1984, she covered crime, environmental issues, and local news for The Miami Herald. She then freelanced in Paris, France for three years before relocating to New York City, where she wrote and adapted short plays for national education magazines published by Scholastic, Inc.

Mona Z. Smith holds a BA in Journalism/News-Editorial from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MFA in Theatre/Playwriting from Columbia University. She lives, works, and writes in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A note from the author

While studying for a master's degree in theater, I wanted to write a play about the intersection of jazz and politics at the end of World War II. Leafing through a library book about McCarthyism, I came across a single-line footnote that attributed Canada Lee's death to the blacklist. Intrigued, I unearthed a few entries in reference books describing him as one of the greatest black actors of his time and mentioning some of his most noted roles. That was the extent of the information readily available. How could a man of such talent be erased from history with hardly a trace? Surely, there was more to this.

Several years of research squeezed around day jobs, family, and other matters turned up more mentions in more books, including [Stefan] Kanfer's study of the blacklist and Victor S. Navasky's Naming Names. A slim but intriguing folder in the theater research collection of the New York Library of the performing Arts tossed more crumbs my way. Celebrity profiles described in greater detail Canada's chameleon transformations from violinist to jockey to boxer to actor. Yellowed clippings showed he had worked in the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre during the Depression before achieving Broadway stardom in Orson Welles's adaptation of Native Son. Movie reviews showed that Lee had landed significant roles in several films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat. A newspaper photo of Canada helping to organize a rally against Jim Crow in the theater was the first tangible evidence of his political activism. Though tantalizing, Lee's story was still far from complete.

Then came a real breakthrough, followed by crushing disappointment. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem had acquired seven boxes of materials on Canada. After years of turning up bits and scraps, I thought I had hit the jackpot, only to discover that the materials were off-limits to researchers. Archivists said Lee's papers were fragile, and his files hadn't yet been sorted or microfilmed. However, an attorney who had overseen the transfer of these materials to the Schomburg said the donor was Lee's widow, who was still alive. Write a letter describing your project, the attorney suggested, and I'll forward it to her. Soon after, Frances Lee Pearson telephoned with an invitation to visit her in Atlanta. Meeting this woman was a revelation; now in her eighties and legally blind, Frances is an absolute dynamo. Determined to preserve Lee's story, she created a database about his life, copying his files into a computer with special equipment rigged for her by family and friends. When I told her how much I wanted to put Lee's story on the stage, Frances opened her late husband's files and shared her most treasured memories, bringing the richness of Canada's story to life at long last - his rise to stardom, his fight for civil rights, his persecution under the blacklist, his failing health, those final moments before he slipped away from her forever.

In one form or another, I have been writing his story ever since.

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