Billie Allen, an actress who appeared on and off Broadway when New York theater was not especially welcoming to black performers, and who helped integrate network television, making frequent appearances on “The Phil Silvers Show” in the 1950s and in commercials in the 1960s, died on Dec. 29 at her home in Manhattan. She was 90.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Carolyn J. Grant.
Though not a marquee name, Ms. Allen was part of a significant theater cohort. She was a longtime friend of Ruby Dee (whom she directed in 2001 in “Saint Lucy’s Eyes,” an Off Broadway drama about abortion). Her second husband was the composer and arranger Luther Henderson, with whom she helped develop “Little Ham,” a musical based on Langston Hughes’s play of the same name about street life in Harlem.
In 1973, with the actor Morgan Freeman and others, she was a founder of the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop in Harlem — a tribute to Silvera, an actor, director and influential teacher who died in 1970 — whose attendees have included Ntozake Shange, Charles Fuller and Samm-Art Williams.
Ms. Allen, whose early performing interest was ballet, arrived in New York City from Virginia in the mid-1940s and danced on Broadway in shows including “Caribbean Carnival,” a 1947 musical revue; a 1952 revival of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” the Virgil Thomson opera with a libretto by Gertrude Stein; and “My Darlin’ Aida,” a 1952 adaptation of Verdi’s opera.
She studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. As an understudy in the landmark production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959), she had occasion to go on as Beneatha Younger, the forward-looking sister of the play’s misguided protagonist.
She played a maid to a theater critic (Henry Fonda) and his playwright wife (Georgann Johnson) in Ira Levin’s comedy “Critic’s Choice” (1960), and had a small part in “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” James Baldwin’s anguishing 1964 civil rights drama drawn from the murder of the black teenager Emmett Till in 1955.
Her final Broadway appearance, in 1969, was in “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” a comedy about a Jewish widower whose son falls in love with a black woman. Co-written by and starring the comedian Jackie Mason (Ms. Allen played the young woman’s mother), the show earned Broadway notoriety for its absurdly extended preview period — 97 performances — following which it closed after opening night.
Of Ms. Allen’s many Off Broadway roles, the most prominent was Sarah, the central character of “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” Adrienne Kennedy’s 1964 study of the nightmarish torments of a young black woman.
Ms. Allen was one of the first black performers with a recurring role on a network series, appearing (sometimes uncredited) as a member of the Women’s Army Corps on “The Phil Silvers Show,” the CBS military comedy that starred Silvers as the scheming Sergeant Bilko.
She also grew to be in demand for television ads, appearing in commercials for Pampers diapers and cleaning products like Rinso and Tide.
“Television viewers, at least those who don’t tune out their minds during commercials,” The New York Times reported in a 1968 article that featured Ms. Allen, “are now beginning to learn that Negroes can worry about dentures, dishpan hands and bad breath just as everyone else in TV land seems to.”
Wilhelmina Louise Allen was born in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 13, 1925. Her mother, the former Mamie Wimbush, was a teacher; her father, William Allen, was an actuary.
A ballet and opera devotee, she idolized Marian Anderson and attended her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall. After graduating from high school, she attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) before moving to New York.
Ms. Allen’s other television credits include “Car 54, Where Are You?” in the early 1960s and “Law & Order” in the early 1990s. She appeared in a handful of films as well, including “Black Like Me” (1964) and “The Wiz” (1978).
Ms. Allen’s first marriage, to Duane Grant, an aerospace engineer, ended in divorce. Her marriage to Mr. Henderson ended with his death in 2003. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a son, Duane Grant Jr.; a brother, Edward Allen; a granddaughter; and several stepchildren.
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