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Lucas, Isabelle Harrietfree

(1927–1997)
  • Stephen Bourne

Isabelle Harriet Lucas (1927–1997)

by unknown photographer, c.1955

collection of Stephen Bourne

Lucas, Isabelle Harriet (1927–1997), singer and actress, was born on 3 December 1927 in Toronto, Canada, the daughter of Arnold Augustus Lucas, a Barbadian chef who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and his wife, Irene, née Dabney, a church organist and choir mistress. In 1954 she travelled to London to further her career: 'I studied opera but Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells turned me down. There were no openings for black opera singers at that time' (Bourne, 137). Penniless and desperate for work, she saw an advertisement in The Stage newspaper and successfully auditioned for The Jazz Train (1955), a revue at the Piccadilly Theatre: 'I sang “Dat's Love” from Carmen Jones so my ambition to sing opera on the London stage was fulfilled, but not at Covent Garden!'.

During the post-London tour of The Jazz Train Lucas met the saxophonist Maurice Edward Jennings (b. 1926), and they were married on 24 August 1957. After The Jazz Train she successfully combined a singing and acting career with many stage and television appearances, but she later remembered the 'scramble for work' for Britain's black actresses and the competition they faced from well-known African-Americans: 'They had the edge on us because, as far as casting directors and producers were concerned, they had more experience than us, as well as glamour. I didn't think this was fair. But in the 1950s, if there was a part for a black woman in a television play … with very few exceptions she was usually a maid or part of a race problem play' (Bourne, 137).

Lucas's stage work in the 1960s included Ex-Africa at the 1963 Edinburgh Festival, described as 'a black odyssey in jazz, rhyme and calypso'; Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1964), a Glasgow Citizens' production in which she was the first woman to play the Storyteller; The Negro Theatre Workshop's Bethlehem Blues (1964); and as Barbra Streisand's maid in the 1966 London production of the Broadway hit Funny Girl. In 1968, in an inspired piece of casting, she and Thomas Baptiste were cast as the first black Martha and George in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a production at the Connaught in Worthing. She then joined the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1969 to appear in George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah and Peter Nichols's The National Health.

When she successfully auditioned for the role of Mammy in the stage musical version of Gone with the Wind (1972) Lucas had reservations about taking the part: 'it was a good role and I had the stage to myself for a couple of solos … But this was during the time of black consciousness and I had doubts about wearing a bandanna and playing a mammy. Then I thought if I do it honestly it will be ok, and it was' (interview with Stephen Bourne, 22 Feb 1989). In 1973, when the director Sir Peter Hall cast her in the National Theatre's production of The Bacchae, she clashed with Hall when he insisted on nudity for the female characters. When she appeared on stage, she made sure she was 'artfully draped'. Stage work continued with the role of the impatient nurse in Neil Simon's comedy The Sunshine Boys, starring Jimmy Jewel and Alfred Marks, at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1975. Her association with the black theatre movement included appearances at the Arts Theatre in Steve Carter's Nevis Mountain Dew (1983) and Edgar White's Moondance Night (1987), as well as Mustapha Matura's Trinidad Sisters (1988), a black-cast version of Chekhov's Three Sisters for the Tricycle Theatre Company at the Donmar Warehouse. Her final West End musical, Look to the Rainbow (1985), was a celebration of the lyricist Yip Harburg, at the King's Theatre Club, later transferring to the Apollo. Her final stage appearance came in 1993 as a critically acclaimed Nurse in Judi Dench's production of Romeo and Juliet at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park.

Lucas made numerous television appearances, from the 1950s onwards. Her best-known television role was Lenny Henry's mother in Britain's first all-black sitcom, The Fosters, for London Weekend Television (1976–7). In 1979 she made a memorable appearance as the first black lesbian to be portrayed on British television in an episode of the sitcom Agony, which, to her delight, won her a glowing review in Gay News. In 1991 she was reunited with Norman Beaton, her co-star in The Fosters, in an episode of the Channel 4 sitcom Desmond's. She played a vamp-like old flame of Beaton's who keeps turning up at his Peckham barbershop at highly inconvenient moments. Other television appearances included the series May to December (1989–93), EastEnders (1994), and, finally, an episode of The Bill (1995).

Though she worked regularly in Britain for more than forty years Lucas didn't feel enough progress had been made for black actors. In 1989 she expressed her disappointment: 'In America they have pioneered integrated casting and there is work for mostly everybody, black and white. Here, black actors are kept in a ghetto … I have worked in this country for nearly forty years and all we are left with is the Notting Hill Carnival and a struggling black theatre constantly under threat because of cuts in funding' (interview with Stephen Bourne, 22 Feb 1989). She died at her home, 31 Latchmere Road, Kingston upon Thames, on 24 February 1997, following a heart attack, and was survived by her husband. Her friend Doreen Hermitage, who appeared with her in Gone with the Wind, said: 'Isabelle had a quality you can only describe as magic. It just shone out of her' (private information).

Sources

  • The Guardian (1 March 1997)
  • The Independent (1 March 1997)
  • The Times (3 March 1997)
  • S. Bourne, Black in the British frame: black people in British film and television, 1896–1996 (1998)
  • personal knowledge (2013)
  • private information (2013)
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, performance footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance recording

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1955, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • film stills, 1977–83, Rex Features, London

Wealth at Death

under £180,000: probate, 4 June 1997, CGPLA Eng. & Wales