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Playwright Phillip Hayes Dean Dies At 83

Phillip Hayes Dean.
Courtesy of Craig Schwartz Photography

Playwright Phillip Hayes Dean died earlier this week. His family says the 83 year-old died in Los Angeles of a heart condition. He was in the midst of overseeing a production of his most famous play, "Paul Robeson."

Dean wrote "Paul Robeson" to chronicle the life of the famed scholar, athlete, singer, actor and humanitarian activist. Robeson was best known for his thunderous basso profundo and his rendition of black spirituals and work songs. The play was controversial when it debuted on Broadway in 1978; James Earl Jones starred, and some of Robeson's relatives disagreed with his warts-and-all portrayal. (At times, he and Jones disagreed, too. The play was directed by Lloyd Richards, who would later become famous for his work with August Wilson and their collaboration on such plays as Fences.) But the play would go on to enjoy successful revivals in 1988 and 1995, and has been produced throughout the United States and in Europe.

Dean was born in Chicago and grew up there and in Pontiac, Mich. His first brush with the theater was in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. (His very first assignment was pulling the curtain at the opening of "Life With Mother.") He acted on Broadway in the '50s and eventually segued into stage managing, then play writing, in New York and in regional theaters. His works include "The Last American Dixieland Band," "Freeman" and "The Sty of the Blind Pig." "Blind Pig" is a tense drama set in Chicago's South Side just before the civil rights movement begins in earnest. Time called it one of the best plays of 1971, and it received a prestigious Drama Desk Award the same year.

In the mid-'90s, Dean moved to California, where he directed and taught drama classes. His death occurred in the midst of another Robeson revival, at the Ebony Repertory Theater in Los Angeles. Arts writer Darlene Donloe had the last interview with Dean before his death, and came away with this impression: "He was an eloquent speaker, emotional and impassioned. You could tell by his voice how much he loved the theater, and black people." In past interviews, and in Donloe's, Dean sounded angry about black-on-black crime, and the direction in which black youth seemed to be going. It was not, Donloe stressed, self hatred, but disappointment. "He loved black people and wanted to see them do better."

Dean is survived by his wife Patricia, daughters Wendy and Karen, brother Howard, and several grandchildren.

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.