Student Gilbert Bailey wins inaugural Frances Foster Award

Penn State theatre student Gilbert Bailey is the recipient of the first Frances Foster Award for Excellence in Acting and Promoting Diversity in Penn State's School of Theatre. The award is a result of a $10,000 permanent endowment set up by J. Ann and Charles Dumas to commemorate the memory of their dear friend and mentor, Frances Foster. The purpose of the award is to honor and recognize outstanding achievement by undergraduate students who excel scholastically and artistically and whose ethnic and or cultural background enhance the diversity of the School of Theatre.

Foster, who lived from 1924 to 1997, was a distinguished character actress, stage director, and a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company. She appeared in or directed more than 50 shows for NEC for which she was awarded an Obie and several Audelco awards. She received NEC’s Adolph Caesar Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement. She trained at the American Theatre Wing Academy and was in the original cast of "A Raisin in the Sun," understudying the roles of Ruth and Beneatha, and played the role of Ruth on the national tour. She made her New York City stage debut in The Wisteria Trees at City Center Theatre in 1955 and appeared in hundreds of other plays, films and television shows. She was a member of the Actors Equity Council from 1953 to 1967.

In 1997 while on leave from the Broadway production of "Having Our Say" she agreed to play Mama in the Penn State production of "A Raisin in the Sun," the first play written by an African-American performed on Penn State's mainstage. The idea of completing the cycle, playing all three women in Raisin, intrigued her, she said. It was the only college production she appeared in during her career, and it also was her last play before she died.

Having a chance to interact with young theatre artists compelled her to come to Penn State. She served as mentor and inspiration to the students and faculty alike. Many students from that production went on to play Broadway, regional theatres, television and films. One is a tenured professor of acting at Ithaca College.

When Foster performed at Penn State, there were only three African-American graduate students, a handful of undergraduates, and one junior faculty member in the School of Theatre. Today, due in part to her example and influence, the School looks different. There are six African-American graduate acting students and many undergraduate majors of color. The faculty now includes five African-Americans and one Latino. The School regularly produces plays by writers of color and has become one of the centers of hip-hop theatre in academia. Much of this progress in diversity came as a direct result of Foster's inspiration and pioneering efforts.

Last Updated May 18, 2010