Canada Lee: From Becoming to Being, From Being to Disappearing
As a way of understanding history, we tend to discuss and research important figures that shape the course of history with their lives. This process allows us to humanize history and to better hear the voices of our past. There are times when a voice is muffled and seems to have been lost amongst the papers, files, and stories of his time. Much like his contemporaries Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, Canada Lee was very active and popular in his career as an artist and activist. This led to negative attention from oppositional forces such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that eventually led to the downfall of many artists during this time, including Robeson: the renowned singer and activist who was blacklisted much like Canada Lee was. It is interesting to note that although we do not recognize Canada Lee’s name in the same fashion of (and in many cases, not even in conjunction with) that of Paul Robeson’s, Robeson and Lee had shockingly similar careers and downfalls. This made me wonder what led them to these fates. What pressures were put on the black artists of their time? What were the expectations and how did Robeson and Lee stick to or stray from them? Through an exploration of these questions, we may be able to trace Lee’s irreversible descent into obscurity. Through an investigation of primary and secondary sources, we can create a portrait of the figure Canada Lee by describing the drastic arch of his life — from rising up and becoming something to dying as a “nobody.”
Those who do recognize the name “Canada Lee” often associate that name with words such as “grace” and “style” as they think of the reviews that his performances produced. What these people recognize is Lee’s “star quality,” which gives the impression that his success as an actor was something that came easily. In fact, Lee’s “rags to riches” story was often a selling point in the past but not something we remember today. In her biography of Canada Lee (Becoming Something), Mona Z. Smith details Canada’s unusual journey to fame. Through her research, she found that “[n]early every profile makes much of Canada’s rags-to-riches journey from poor Harlem rapscallion to violin prodigy to jockey to prizefighter to Broadway star. The press ate it up, and Canada was happy to dish it out on quantity. He knew the score from his prizefighting days: if you want to see your name in the headlines, you’ve got to fork over juicy quotes and anecdotes” (Smith, Becoming Something, 100). Canada Lee was a charmer and surely had enough “juicy quotes and anecdotes” to offer the press, which contributed to his celebrity status once he had achieved it.
The trials Canada Lee went through to become a star aren’t a point of focus to those who initially come across this figure in their studies, but they should be points of interest because they do not speak only to Lee’s personal trials, but to the trials of his race as well. As stated above, Lee took on many careers, all of which were theatrical in some capacity. Amongst the many titles he took on in his life, his favorite was “boxer.” He once claimed, “‘Fighting gave me stage presence’” (Smith, Becoming Something, 100). He credited his boxing career for his success as an actor and often admitted that he would have continued to box or returned to boxing if it were not for the incident that left him legally blind in his right eye. Although incidents such as these seemed to shape Lee’s shifts in career, race also clearly played a part in Lee’s transformations. His mentality can be described as stubbornly seeking fame despite the color of his skin; although he might not have admitted it at the time, the issue of race inhibited him from achieving much that he sought out to accomplish. When he was a jockey, his white counterparts would lash him verbally and physically — on and off the track — and he was often neglected the chance to ride in important races. Similarly, Lee had to fight to obtain boxing matches that would showcase his skills and lead him to a championship. And as an actor, Lee struggled to find roles other than the typical menial roles reserved for black artists. Of course, this never stopped him from pursuing his goals. This was the time of his life where he was struggling to “become something.” Through this struggle, his name was starting to become known as he took on different stages through a variety of careers.
Once Lee literally took the stage (i.e. when he became an actor), he embraced the theater lifestyle. He continuously took on roles as a way to support himself financially and spiritually. Many of his important roles leading up to his breaking role in Native Son were in productions through the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a project under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s series of New Deal programs that sought to “alleviate white-collar unemployment among writers, artists, and musicians” (Smith, Becoming Something, 50). The Federal Theatre included sixteen regional Negro Units that focused on hiring black artists. One unit was in Harlem, where Lee stumbled upon auditions for Brother Mose. It was in this production that Canada had his first role. Lee’s seminal role, however, was the role of Banquo in the FTP’s production of Macbeth. Orson Welles, who decided to place Shakespeare’s work in a Haitian context, directed this production. Although critically contested, the production was deemed an overall success, fostering an important relationship between Welles and Lee that will lead to amazing opportunities yet to be foreseen.
In order to discuss a man’s fall from fame, one must determine how established this fame was. Although the FTP was fairly successful, this project was eventually shut down due to political controversy — mostly out of claims of Communist involvement in the theatre, but it is widely believed that racism was the main issue since the more successful units of the FTP were the Negro units that established black artists in their own rights (Gill, "Canada Lee," 83). This left Lee — and many other black artists of his time — at a loss, as he scrambled to find work in the career that he discovered was for him, “for good” (Smith, Becoming Something, 55). To his luck, Lee was now appreciated within the theater community and known to be a talented actor due to his work with the FTP. This influenced Welles’ decision to invite him to audition for the role of Bigger Thomas in the upcoming production of the adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son — an audition that changed the course of Canada Lee’s life.
Native Son was a smash success. Although it suffered some minor setbacks that led to a late opening, a grueling rehearsal process and little overall commercial success, this play introduced a new way of looking at the society that permeated the world Canada was living in. A playbill from the 1940s Broadway production of Native Son
showcases Lee in the starring role of Bigger Thomas. Presented by the Brandts, this playbill gives a detailed description of the cast and crew of Native Son, including Orson Welles,
Anne Burr, and Rena Mitchell.
However, according to this playbill, the star of the show was clearly Canada Lee. It includes an article
describing Lee’s stellar performance as Bigger and countless photos of Lee’s iconic moments within the play — Lee committing murder,
Lee hiding out in a dilapidated apartment, Lee behind bars — as well as moments of interactions between Lee and other members of the production (Orson Welles, Anne Burr, etc.).
Lee’s star quality through the role of Bigger seems to be a selling point for the play in this collector’s playbill. With the short biography
that offer detailed descriptions of his life and acting style, the playbill pieces together a portrait of the actor behind the role. In his essay, “How ‘Bigger’ was Born,” Richard Wright describes the origin of the character Bigger Thomas, which offers analysis of the character that links to Canada Lee’s performance and eventual growing interest in political affairs. Wright claims to have written Bigger straight out of his childhood, listing stories of all the “Biggers” in his life that all ended up either dead, in prison, or thrown in an asylum. Wright described how one of these Biggers “oscillated between moods of intense elation and depression. He was never happier than when he had outwitted some foolish custom, and he was never more melancholy than when brooding over the impossibility of his ever being free” (Wright, Native Son). Through his writing, Wright came across the revelation that fear within our society towards the strength and fertility of the Negro necessitated rules (i.e. Jim Crow laws) to force them into submission even after they were free in order to keep them from controlling these areas that they were so comfortable and strong in (i.e. the South). Bigger comes to represent the African American male’s reaction to this force; According to Wright, “oppression spawned among them a myriad variety of reactions, reaching from outright blind rebellion to a sweet, otherworldly submissiveness” (Wright, Native Son). This “Bigger Thomas conditioning and its numerous shadings” was a way of “gauging the effect of American civilization upon the personalities of people” (Wright, Native Son). Bigger Thomas is the “native son of this land” because he is the “product of a dislocated society” (Wright, Native Son). This role of Bigger Thomas offered Lee a platform to explore the injustices wrought upon his race by American society; Canada Lee was ready to take that platform.
Throughout his life, Canada Lee fought to do what he felt was right in the little ways that he could. Whether it was offering advice to aspiring black boxers and artists or offering runaways a place to stay for a night or two (or even a year), Lee sought to help. After his experience with Native Son, Lee was able to take this urge to a new level. Some would argue that Native Son was the start of Lee’s activist career as he began to draw parallels from his experiences working on the show to the world beyond. A friend of Lee’s, Leonard de Paur commented on Lee’s “growing political awareness” as they spoke backstage at the St. James Theater after a show and explained “[F]or the first time he [i.e. Canada Lee] was becoming, at least psychologically, a politically active person” (Smith, Becoming Something, 104). As this occurred, Lee began to hone his public speaking skills. He soon became a public figure as he was asked to speak on the behalf of many organizations, groups, and movements. When Native Son was forced to shut down after a successful Broadway run and tour, Lee fought against it to expose the underlying cause of the closing of the show. Many believed that the show had become too left wing as Lee attempted to use it as a force to fight Jim Crow in theaters across the nation. Lee refused to pander to conservative views in New York City. Therefore, after the eventual closing of Native Son, Lee turned his focus to Hollywood in search of a new career in film and activism.
The decision to become an outspoken political figure through his art put Lee under the radar of the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). This committee began to investigate Lee as a possible “subversive,” and the result of this would turn out to be deadly (Smith, Becoming Something, 139). As Lee found roles in Hollywood, such as his role as a sailor in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, he sought to prove stereotypes of African American performance wrong. As was true of all his performances, he refused to play menial characters or to give into the racism that he was faced with as a black actor. Although he was expected to play the sailor role as a menial character, he refused to use any dialect or say any lines that were stereotypical. He served as a role model for artists who sought to properly represent their people. As Lee became more outspoken in issues across America, HUAC continued to collect information on him that eventually was used against him in the espionage trial of Judith Coplon (Smith, Becoming Something). Although the trial is a generally forgotten part of HUAC history (left to the status of a footnote, much like Canada Lee), it changed Lee’s life drastically. Since he refused to name the names of other “comrades” or to confess to being a Communist, Lee was blacklisted, meaning no one would work with him in any capacity. All his struggling to become something lead to nothing, all because he tried to use his voice to stir change.
Paul Robeson, a famous contemporary of Canada Lee as well as a close friend, also had a very successful career until he was brought before HUAC to answer the infamous question “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?” Robeson put on quite a performance at his trial, defending himself with carefully articulated claims by “refram[ing] the question of a war with the Soviet Union as a question of civil rights” (Perucci, “The Red Mask of Sanity,” 34). By doing this, "Robeson makes it clear that it is as much for his blackness as it is his ‘Redness’ for which he is being persecuted” (Perucci, “The Red Mask of Sanity,” 37) and therefore made it possible for the Committee to use “his name to have the citational force of referencing not simply a ‘Communist,’ But ‘the African American Communist,’ so that Black witnesses [...] could then performatively secure their citizenship by disavowing ‘Paul Robeson,’ in order to affirm their loyalty to the United States” (Perucci, “The Red Mask of Sanity,” 37). The position that Robeson held throughout the trial “gave rise to a critique of US postwar foreign policy, civil rights, economic practices, and thus threatened to reveal that HUAC and other anti-Communist forces were operating as a means to undo New Deal programs” (Perucci, “The Red Mask of Sanity,” 38). As a result of his position in this trial, Robeson was blacklisted and struggled to find work much like Lee did. Both artists threatened HUAC “[b]y voicing protest through the form and content of [their] speeches [and performing] a sonic resistance, one that HUAC seeks to manage” (Perucci, “The Red Mask of Sanity,” 38). This struggle lead to physical stress on Lee’s part and mental deterioration for Robeson that ultimately ended in death for both artists. Both artists spoke out for civil rights in America and both were castigated for their activism. Although they spoke out in similar ways — through speeches and their art — Robeson and Lee handled the role of public figure differently. Robeson became more of a representative figure while Lee continued to develop his own political opinions and thoughts. Robeson was a bit tamer than Lee and understood how to present himself to the public in a way that was in line with the public’s wishes. Canada, on the other hand, spoke honestly and often uncensored in a way that at times turned off both black and white audiences (Smith, Becoming Something). Although Robeson and Lee both defied the expectations of white audiences by refusing to fulfill the stereotype of the typical black performance, Lee was more of an individual, which made it difficult for black audiences to accept him.
One major question that the exhibition of this playbill presents to us is if Canada Lee was so popular at the time of this production that his name could be used as a selling point, why is it that no one can recognize his name today? Although Robeson fell from grace, he was eventually reclaimed by American history. There are several reasons this reclamation was successful — the fact that Robeson had done much traveling outside the U.S. and had made some international success (unlike Lee) or that Robeson left behind his legacy through his son, who actively tried to preserve his father’s memory. The same cannot be said for Canada Lee; his history has fallen through the cracks. Can we destroy the cloak of anonymity that keeps Canada Lee hidden within American history? Some efforts of exposure have been made. An example is Mona Z. Smith’s biography and biographical play Becoming Something that sketches out the significant events of Lee’s life. Through her art, Smith is attempting to make information on Canada Lee more accessible to broader audiences, much like this web exhibit is attempting to do. Through these old photos and stories, perhaps we can revive the name “Canada Lee” enough to hear a whisper from the sonic resistance of a voice once silenced.
Gill, Glenda E. “Canada Lee: Black Actor in Non-Traditional Roles.” Journal of Popular Culture Vol. 25 Issue 3 (1991): p79–89.
Perucci, Tony. “The Red Mask of Sanity: Paul Robeson, HUAC, and the Sound of Cold War Performance.” The Drama Review Vol. 53 Issue 4 (2009): p18–48.
Smith, Mona Z. Becoming Something: the story of Canada Lee. 1st ed. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. With an introd.: “How ‘Bigger’ was born,” by the author. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.