“I refuse to be stereotyped. Look at me. Never mind my color. Please look at me!”
WHY ISN’T THERE A BIOPIC OF DIANA SANDS’ LIFE?
I can’t help being drawn to Diana Sands’ startling equilibrium, her fire. Her complex and multi-layered performances. I see her as a Black Woman. I see her as a woman. I see her as ubiquitous. Diana Sands refused to be typecast in roles that were confining and dishonest. I can imagine that she forged an inroad that would later influence incredible dramatic Black actresses like Alfre Woodard or Angela Bassett, women who exude that similar fire and vibrancy from the depths of their souls.
I think of Diana Sands and I think of an inner strength that burns it’s way to the surface until it’s so bright you feel it pierce your skin. There is an essence of a powerfully self-possessed woman who broke ground with her captivating performances in the early 1960s to the mid 1970s. I don’t like the phrase “color blind” it evokes an irresponsibility not to see inequality. But that is not what Diana Sands is saying in her quote. That’s not what she is asking of us.
So I am using her own words but want to be clear about how I feel in this post honoring one of the great actresses of all time during Black History Month. We need to recognize each other. It’s essential not to try and erase any aspect of who we are and we need to be conscious of those differences in a positive way, while we embrace what we all have in common and can relate to universally.
Diana Sands had to fend off the offensive scrutiny, the “mysogynoir‘ of being referred to by some 70s critics -one whose name I refuse to even give a moment’s attention here except to pluck out two terms from the ignorant context of his entire, misguided and disrespectful review. Who referred to her role as “cute” in terms of her being a Black woman trying to find herself and “afrocentric” in her performance as Beneatha Younger (A Raisin in the Sun). What she was, was a dynamic, courageous woman who aspired to become a doctor. That isn’t cute. That is the story of real passion and possibility and a god-given right.
Diana Sands as Beneatha Younger, seen here with Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and Ivan Dixon.
As a white woman writing this post I want to just say one more thing. We need to see our own privilege and not be afraid to acknowledge that racism exists. I hope I am a good ally and when I pay tribute to a person of color, that I remain mindful to honor them fully and respectfully. I do see Diana Sands color. I see it as a strength and a dignity in all her pioneering roles. I see her emerge from a sea of white faces. She will not be marginalized, stereotyped and shut out of the conversation.
I began to follow Diana Sands’ career years ago, compelled by her dramatic, electrifying presence in film and in television. Growing up in New York, I wish my theatre mother would have taken me to see her on stage. She is remembered for her striking performance as Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry‘s play A Raisin in the Sun about the struggles of a poor black family from the side south of Chicago who have to decide about the direction their lives will take- “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”
What happens to a dream deferred? by Langston Hughes
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The title A Raisin in the Sun was inspired by Langston Hughes’ powerful poem. The inspirational masterpiece that is A Raisin in the Sun is made all the more remarkable by the performances of the ensemble cast and standing out for me, though Poitier always grabs me by the guts and strums my heart strings, is his progressive sister Beneatha brought to life by Diana Sands with instinctual contemplation that was her acting style.
She was marvelous as sassy Fanny Johnson, married to a Black activist Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.) in Hal Ashby’s (Harold and Maude 1971, The Last Detail 1973, Being There 1979) The Landlord 1970. The story of Elgar Enders a young wealthy white New Yorker (Beau Bridges) who buys a tenement building in a low-income neighborhood afflicted by white-flight and going through gentrification. Elgar Intends to evict the black residents so he can turn it into a luxury apartment building and live there all by himself. The cast is rich with superb performances by Pearl Baily, Mel Stewart, Lee Grant, Louis Gossett Jr, and Marki Bey as Lanie. In Ashby’s thought provoking method, it’s an interesting meditation on race during the close of the 1960s.
Diana appeared in innovative television dramas, such as the innovative socially conscious series East Side/West Side 1963-1964 that dealt realistically with social problems. The gritty series starred Cicely Tyson, George C. Scott, and Elizabeth Wilson as social workers in 1960s New York City. Sands appeared on several episodes of the 1960s series The Doctors and the Nurses which I am desperately waiting for it to somehow be released on disc. The groundbreaking series surrounded the lives of nurses who in their daily lives confront socially relevant issues. Diana Sands even graced one of my favorite television series The Outer Limits in 1964 as Dr. Julie Harrison in the episode “The Mice”. She also played Dr. Marylou Neeley who went head to head with Chad Everett (who always wore clogs and his scrubs 2 sized too small, but who would mind!) in Medical Center’s episode “The Nowhere Child”. She appeared as Nurse Helen Straughn having an affair with Richard Crenna in George Schaefer’s pulpy Doctors’ Wives 1971, and as Cora in Willie Dynamite 1974 the title played by Roscoe Orman, a nasty piece of work who has a license plate that says Willie on the front and Dynamite on the back! As Cora, Diana Sands played a prostitute turned social worker who helps other prostitutes get out of jail and find a better life, while also trying to battle the badass pimp Willie who is smacking women around.
I am trying to track down a copy of An Affair of the Skin 1963 co-starring Viveca Lindfors and Lee Grant, LOVE them both, and Georgia, Georgia 1972 written by Maya Angelou. If anyone has a lead on where I can purchase either film please drop me a note here at The Last Drive In.
Diana Sands Broke Barriers In Theater and On The Big Screen
Stacia L. Brown’s thoughtful tribute published on August 23, 2012 on Diana Sands birthday in her piece Diana Sands: What Was and What Could’ve Been
“If youre familiar with Sands work at all, its probably owing to her memorable portrayal of Beneatha, the Younger familys willful, progressive aspiring doctor, in the 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. But by then, she had already established herself as a living walking testament to the power of risk-taking. Sands grew up in the Bronx with working class parents, her father a carpenter, her mother hatmaker. After high school graduation, she toured with a carnival before returning to New York and joining Greenwich Mews, a multicultural theatre repertory. She worked night jobs to survive, before scoring her first theatre roles (one of the earliest was the stage production of A Raisin in the Sun). By 1964, her star was rapidly rising. She won an Obie for the play, Living Premise, and a Tony nomination for her role in James Baldwins Blues for Mr. Charlie.
This was also the year that Sands became a pioneer in colorblind casting as one of the first ever actresses to earn a role intended for a white actress, without any line rewriting to explain or accommodate her race. She played opposite Alan Alda as his love interest as a would-be actress to his would-be writer. When the film was adapted for screen, Barbra Streisand was cast in her role, but by that time, shed already garnered a great deal of positive press and audience notice. Television came a-courtin and she eventually earned two Emmy nominations. Sands acted through the sixties in various theatre and TV roles. In 1970, she scored her first costarring film role in Hal Ashbys The Landlord. But the early 70s would mark the end of a steady and promising rise toward superstardom.”
Diana Sands was born in New York City, the Bronx to be exact, on August 22, 1934. She was a student at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts and a member of the Actor’s Studio. Nominated twice for a Tony Award and twice for an Emmy. She took risks and challenged racial barriers taking on roles that traditionally would have been performed by white actresses. She also fought against a system that marginalized black actors and their roles, becoming a driving force that saw an integration of the cast members.
In 1953 Diana made her debut in the off-Broadway play “An Evening with Will Shakespeare” She went on to appear in George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” in 1954, also performing in the theatrical production of “The World of Sholem Aleichem.”
Her striking work is notable as she is the first Black actress to be cast in a major Broadway play. Cast in “Land Beyond the River” in 1957 and then appearing in “The Egg and I” in 1958.
It was in 1959 that Diana Sands made her memorable debut as the astonishingly nuanced Beneatha Younger in Raisin in the Sun, in which she won the Outer Circle Critics’ Award, eventually manifesting that magnetic performance in director Daniel Petrie’s (Resurrection 1980) film adaptation co-starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Ivan Dixon.
And I want to give a shout out to the incredible contribution by fine actress Claudia McNeil (Bernice Sadie Brown in Member of the Wedding 1958 for The Dupont Show of the Month, Mrs. Quincy in The Last Angry man 1959, Mrs. Hill in television series The Doctors and The Nurses 1963, Madam in There Was a Crooked Man 1970, Odessa Carter in Incident in San Francisco 1971 tv movie, Granny Marshall in Tv’s Mod Squad 1972, Sara in Moon of the Wolf 1972 tv movie, Mu’ Dear in Black Girl 1972, To Be Young, Gifted and Black 1972 tv movie, Ethel Hanson in Cry Panic 1974 tv movie, Big Ma in Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry 1978, Sister Will Ada Barnett in Roots: The Next Generation 1979) as the matriarch, Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. An extraordinary actress herself who deserves the spotlight too. Partly what worked for Hansberry’s story is the chemistry and confluence of the entire cast.
Diana Sands returned to the stage in 1962 appearing in “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright.”
In 1964 she took on two outstanding roles onstage as Juanita in James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mr. Charlie” she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a play. She co-starred with Alan Alda as Doris W. in the The Owl and the Pussycat, originally offered to Kim Stanley another actress I find mesmerizing to watch, when Stanley was unavailable, with the script intentionally not re-written for a Black woman went to Diana Sands and once again she nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
In 1968, she was back on stage at the Vivien Beaumont Theater as the first Black woman to play Saint Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s play “St. Joan.”
In the beginning of the 1970s Diana Sands among other notable Black actors such as Ossie Davis and Brock Peters, who wanted to feature more positive roles for African-Americans in films, and so they founded Third World Cinema. One of their first productions was the film Georgia, Georgia written by Maya Angelou. Diana Sands plays Georgia Martin a Black woman artist struggling to find herself.
From a New York Times article printed in Feb 1971, A.H. Weiler writes that Third World Cinema Corporation founder and President actor/director Ossie Davis planned on filming The Billie Holiday Story which would have starred Diana Sands. How incredible would that have been.
In hopes of creating an independent film corporation, Sands and her colleagues hoped to ensure that there would be better opportunities for positive portrayals of African-American and People of Color, that would ensure films that presented Black actors with outstanding roles that were versatile and representational rather than stereotypes and limiting. “A group of black and Puerto Rican actors, writers and directors, backed by union leaders and public officials, have joined to form the minority‐controlled Third World Cinema Corporation, an independent company that plans to produce feature films and train minority group members in the film and television fields.”
Above image from the movie, Georgia, Georgia 1972.
In 1974 Diana Sands was ready to take on the role of Claudine, tragically suffering at this point with pancreatic cancer she was too ill by this time, and the part went to friend Diahann Carroll.
As Beaneatha Younger in 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, as Adelaide Smith in Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright 1962 (Theatre World Award), The Living Premise 1963 (Obie Award Distinguished Performance), Doris W. The Owl and the Pussycat 1964, Juanita in Blues for Mr. Charlie 1964, The Premise 1965, as Ruth in We Bombed in New Haven 1968, as Cassandra in Tiger at the Gates 1968, as Joan in Saint Joan 1968, The Gingham Dog 1969.
As Dr. Julie Harrison in The Outer Limits “The Mice” 1964, in East Side/West Side 1963-1964 as Jane Foster “It’s War, Man and Ruth Goodwin in “Who Do You Kill?” As Sara Harris in Breaking Point 1964. As nurse Ollie Sutton three episodes of The Doctors and The Nurses 1962-1964 and Andrea Jagger in the episode “Night Shift”. In four episodes as Irene Rush along side James Earl Jones (whose wife she played in East Side/West Side episode Who Do You Kill?) In Dr. Kildare 1964, as Dr. Rachel Albert in I Spy 1966 “Turkish Delight”, as Davala Unawa in The Fugitive 1967 “Dossier on a Diplomat” as as Mrs. May Bishop in Bracken’s World 1970 “Will Freddie’s Real Father Please Stand Up” as Cousin Sara in 5 episodes of Julia 1970-1971, as Dr. Marylou Neeley in Medical Center 1971 “The Nowhere Child.”
As Nurse Ollie Sutton from the episode “Imperfect Prodigy” – The Doctors and The Nurses 1964 television series
As Ruth Goodwin in the episode “Who Do You Kill?” from the television series East Side/West Side 1963
As Davala Unawa in The Fugitive 1967 “Dossier on a Diplomat
As Dr. Julie Harrison in The Outer Limits episode “The Mice” 1964
As Irene Rush in Dr. Kildare “The Hand that Heals” 1966
As Dr. Marylou Neeley in Medical Center 1971 “The Nowhere Child.”
As Fanny in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord 1970
As Helen in Doctors’ Wives 1971
As Cora Williams in Willie Dynamite 1974
Appearing in two extraordinary films, Diana Sands still stood out…
Uncredited as a homeless woman in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd 1957, uncredited as a club hostess in Odds Against Tomorrow 1959, as Beneatha Younger in A Raisin in the Sun 1961, as Janice in An Affair of the Skin 1963, as Mila in Ensign Pulver 1964, as Fanny in The Landlord 1970, Helen Straughn in Doctors’ Wives 1971, as Georgia Martin in Georgia, Georgia 1972, as Nancy Newman in The Living End (tv movie) 1972, as Cora Williams who co-stars with Thalmus Rasulala (Dr. Gordon Thomas in Blacula 1972) in Willie Dynamite 1974 and as Laura Lewis in Honeybaby, Honeybaby 1974.
Thank you Diana Sands… You touch me with your powerful presence and I am deeply saddened that you left us at age 39, so young, too soon, and I wonder what might have been.
Your EverLovin’ Joey