Errol Gaston Hill, scholar, academic, theater historian, playwright and director, died of cancer on the morning of 16th September 2003 at the age of 82 at his home in Hanover, New Hamshire (USA).
Granted the Emeritus (John D. Willard Professor of Drama and Oratory) at Dartmouth, Hill spent 35 years at the College beginning in 1968 when he was appointed to the faculty of the Drama Department. He officially retired in 1989. During his tenure, Hill taught a portfolio of 13 different courses on acting, directing, playwriting and theater history, and he directed 33 full-length productions. In addition to teaching and serving as Chairman of the Drama Department for many years, Hill led the Dartmouth College Summer Repertory Program for six memorable seasons. The first tenured African American faculty member at Dartmouth, Hill also served briefly at the request of the late Dartmouth President John Kemeny as the College's first official Affirmative Action Officer.
Over the course of his life, Hill produced and directed over 120 plays and pageants in the West Indies, England, the United States and Nigeria with amateur, semi-professional and professional companies. Among the classic plays Hill directed during his tenure at Dartmouth were Sophocles' Antigone, Euripides' Hecuba and The Bacchae, Shakespeare's King Lear, The Tempest, and Richard III (with David Birney), and Moliere's The Misanthrope, The Learned Ladies, and Tartuffe. Hill also directed more modern plays originating from the United Kingdom and Europe, including Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, Brecht's The Measures Taken, and O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. Among American plays he staged were Barry's The Philadelphia Story, Childress' Trouble in Mind, Inge's Picnic, and Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke. Hill also staged plays that reflected the Black and Caribbean experience, including Theodore Ward's Our Lan' (with Moses Gunn), Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Jean Genet's The Blacks, Derek Walcott's Ti Jean and His Brothers, Lennox Brown's Devil Mas', and Hill's original Caribbean musical Man Better Man (with set and costumes designed by Peter Minshall).
In the world of academia and scholarship, Hill was prolific right up until his death. He wrote 11 plays, authored or edited 15 major books and periodicals (many of which won professional association and national awards), and wrote 25 major articles on drama and theater history. He was also responsible for researching and writing 83 entries in The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre in 1993 and 33 entries in The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre in 1988.
Hill's study of the African American and Caribbean theater earned him worldwide acclaim and a reputation as the foremost historical scholar in these fields. His historical research produced such groundbreaking works as: The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre (1972), The Theater of Black Americans (1980), Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors (1984), The Jamaican Stage 1655-1900: Profile of a Colonial Theatre (1992), Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre (1994), and the recently published A History of African American Theatre (2003) co-authored with James V. Hatch, Professor Emeritus of English and Drama at City University of New York. Upon awarding Errol Hill the Kent State University 1996 Robert Lewis Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Theater Research, Don Wilmeth, Professor of Theater at Brown University, said, "Errol Hill has done more to further the serious study of African American theater and drama, as well as the theater of the Caribbean, than any one scholar in the world."
Hill served on the Executive Committees of the American Society for Theater Research and the American Theater and Drama Society and was a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theater. He was an Evaluator for the National Association of Schools of Theater, a Visitor to the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard University, and a former president of the Dartmouth Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Hill served as visiting professor at universities in England, Canada, and the United States. In 1983, he was named the Chancellor's Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Berkeley and, in 1994, he was named the Mellon Visiting Professor at Tulane University. In 1999, he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of the West Indies in recognition of his scholarship related to Caribbean plays and playwrights.
Among Hill's numerous awards were British Council and Fulbright Scholarships, and fellowships from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations, The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Theater Guild of America. He won the Bernard Hewitt Prize for theater history, the Bertram Joseph Award for Shakespeare Studies, and a Gold Medal in Drama from the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. In 1991, Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal from Dartmouth for outstanding leadership and achievement.
Hill was born on August 5, 1921 in Trinidad, West Indies, the son of Thomas David and Lydia (Gibson) Hill. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England, where he won recognition as an actor and announcer for the BBC. Over the course of his life, he performed over 30 major roles in the U.S., West Indies, England, Wales, and Nigeria, many in the 1950s.
Prior to joining Dartmouth, Hill held teaching appointments at the University of the West Indies, the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (for two years as a Rockefeller Foundation teaching fellow) and spent an academic year teaching at City University of New York.
Hill has been credited with sparking the modern era in theatre in the Caribbean. As early as the mid-1940s Hill founded a West Indian acting company (the Whitehall Players, 1946, with the international dramatic actor Errol John). The Caribbean Writer (USVI, 2001,Vol.15) recently noted, "When the urgency for plays with West Indian themes and language became apparent, Hill not only wrote his own, but also advanced Caribbean drama with notable innovations. He utilized the vernacular, a radical and controversial departure for the time, and incorporated aspects of Trinidadian and Caribbean culture. [His plays] Ping Pong (1958) featured steel band players, and Wey Wey (1958) focused on the Trinidadian Chinese numbers game. Dance Bongo (1965), written in free verse, included the ritual dance for the dead. His most famous play, Man Better Man (1964), which represented Trinidad and Tobago at the 1965 Commonwealth Festival in Britain, used rhymed calypso verse with traditional chants and original music."
Hill's work with the University of the West Indies as extramural staff tutor in drama covered the years 1953-1958 and 1962-1965. During these years, from his base in Jamaica, Trinidad or Barbados, Hill traveled throughout the West Indies from Belize to Guyana. He lectured, conducted workshops, adjudicated at festivals and mounted performances for visiting dignitaries.
In 1956, Hill married Grace Hope of Barbados, West Indies. In 1958 he traveled to the United States to study at Yale University and the Yale School of Drama where he earned a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude), a Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting and Doctor of Fine Arts in Theater History in a record four years.
Asked about his careers as actor, teacher, historian, director, and playwright, Hill said recently, "At different stages of my life certain things were more important to me. I enjoyed directing a lot because I could choose plays that I wanted to do, from every conceivable period of theater, and I had the freedom to do them with the best available students, talented students. That was wonderful. Acting and directing - I loved that, [but] nobody was getting the history right; nobody was interested in what went before. So I started it, it had to be done. Whenever I felt there was a need, I took it on."
Hill is survived by his wife of 47 years (Grace Hope Hill of Hanover, NH), their four children (Da'aga Hill Bowman of Arlington, VA; Melina Hill Walker of Hanover, NH; Claudia Hill of New York, NY; and Aaron Hill of New York, NY), a brother (Randolph Hill of Brooklyn, NY), two sisters (Lydia Hill of Brooklyn, NY and Jean Sue-Wing of Santa Cruz, Trinidad), and three grandchildren.