An unlikely combination
May 25, 2001
Tony Powell
Special to The Gazette

Vera J. Katz and student Ayanna Mackins

White Jewish professor ends 32-year career at black university

Vera J. Katz retires this month as a respected and beloved Howard University professor. To achieve that standing, the first white professor in the predominantly black university's theater department had to negotiate substantial obstacles.

Graduating senior Will Pailen says that the most important thing Katz taught him is "to make bold choices, and to commit to them." His words seem an apt characterization of his teacher's 32 years at Howard.

Katz arrived at Howard shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. She was replacing a white teacher who had not fared well in the classroom.

"I was hired as a fluke. It was August 1969 and they were desperate," she recalls.

Her first advanced acting class included off-Broadway actress Lynda Gravatt, the late Harry Poe, founder-director of Ebony Impromptu, and "The Cosby Show's" Phylicia Rashad.

They let Katz know they did not want her there.

"They put their hands on their hips and gave me a hard time. They questioned why I was there," she says, adding that "Years later, they all became my best friends."

Looking back, Katz feels she served as the perfect "payback" target for students who carried bitter memories of exclusion from productions in their white high schools.

Her colleagues were no better. They would debate -- in her presence -- the appropriateness of a "not of the culture" director on the main stage. They seemed to feel it was enough for her to teach acting and directing classes, the latter, a major she initiated in 1970.

Katz's 1971 adaptation of Jean Genet's drama, "The Blacks," in which she moved the setting from England to the black experience in America, earned her credibility. When the playwright was unable to see the play, denied a visa on the basis of a speech he made supporting the Black Panthers, Katz added his words to her production. Respect from faculty and students grew, she explains, because she had not been afraid to criticize and condemn white America.

Faculty members, playwright Owen Dodson and designer St. Clair Christmas, supported Katz from the start. They gave her good advice, she says, "[to] give 'em [your students] what you know, give 'em where you been and the rest is up to them."

She quickly learned that studying black history would help her become an effective teacher at Howard.

"In order to work with people of another culture, you have to practice the three R's: research, reading and respect," Katz says. "I spent a lot of time reading short stories by African American writers so I could pepper my classes with quotations from Zora Neal Hurston and other writers like Charles Chestnut.

"No matter what color you are, you have to understand the other person's history, his heritage."

An ongoing exchange of ideas within the department served to broaden Katz's beliefs about the validity of various approaches to directing and acting. She learned from her colleagues, Mike Malone, who believed in the importance of black dance in theater, and Glenda Dickerson, who blended ritual movement, choral ensemble and chants. "Their craft greatly extended the range of my work," she says. Her own contribution was an emphasis on text analysis and motivation.

Creating a directing major was among Katz's most productive crusades at Howard. With few existing undergraduate programs in directing, she was up against the faculty and the National Association of Schools of Theater. She attributes her persistence and eventual success to her conviction that directing would empower young black students.

Despite her increasing acceptance from faculty and students, Katz had much to endure as a white woman in a black university in the early '70s. The fine arts department's dean never recognized her raised hand at faculty meetings. Her car's tires were slashed, its windows broken. She was spat upon as she walked across campus, and once a knife was put to her throat in a dark hallway of the Theater Arts Building.

But her dedication to teaching acting and directing and her increased sensitivity to the black experience prevailed, and helped her overcome.

After seven years on staff, Katz was eligible for tenure. The review committee determined that her "persona" did not fit in with the university's direction. Convinced hers was a case of discrimination, she hired a black lawyer and sued Howard under the Act of 1975. Supportive students picketed the administration building, holding signs that read "KK-Keep Katz." Reporters picked up the story, then dropped it, she feels, because of her refusal to make pejorative comments about black administrators.

She also refused the university's offer of severance pay, choosing not to take "a fall for money," insisting that relating to people different from her was far more important than the money. A year later, she was reinstated.

Katz refrained from sharing her own Jewish heritage at the university, considering her race enough of an obstacle. It became an issue in 1994 when Louis Farrakhan denounced Jews at a campus rally. In her classes the next day, Katz felt compelled to discuss this sensitive matter. She expressed her view that Farrakhan's comments were as damaging to her ancestors as white Americans who denigrate the heritage of African Americans.

After a New York Times reporter broke the story, it quickly attracted international media coverage. Katz resented being cast as the beleaguered Jew. The frenzy culminated in a CBS interview on Charles Kuralt's Sunday morning news program, where again she fought an attempt to get her to malign black people.

Katz chose Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" as the final piece she would direct at Howard. The experience was made remarkable because the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright collaborated with Katz on her production. He changed some of the dialogue to make it more relevant to the African American community.

"When he came to the school, it was clear that he wanted to make a first-hand connection with the students when guiding them about their characters," she says.

A strong directing program is Katz's legacy to Howard. She has forged a liaison between her students and local theaters, like Woolly Mammoth, where they can assist professional directors. For the past 20 years, she has sponsored programs in which well-known alumni share their expertise with the undergraduates.

Despite her variety of experience at Howard, she has high praise for the institution.

"Howard performs a very strengthening service to African Americans. It develops a strong sense of self and ancestry and leadership," she says.

Overall, the years of teaching have been very rewarding.

"It's been a real honor and privilege to meet parents and grandparents of my students who are the first graduates in their families. That has given me a great sense of contribution to the fabric of society. Teaching is a political and artistic endeavor."

She also relishes her role as an elder. For the past five years, she has been mentoring junior faculty who will shape the future of the Department of Theater Arts.

Although Katz plans to spend more time with her husband, children and grandchildren, her retirement is by no means an end to her career in the theater. The Silver Spring resident is already negotiating with a former student, actress Lynn Whitfield, to direct a play about the civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells.

Nor are her ties with Howard severed. She also sees retirement as a chance to support what her past students are directing and producing.

"Our department is small and bonds like a family. There is an energy and passion here and we nurture each student and in so doing we have made a connection with so many students from all over the country," she says.