October 30, 1922|
New York City, New York, U.S.
July 24, 2011 (aged 88)|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Alfredo Viazzi (1962-87; his death)|
In 1945, she made her Broadway debut in Strange Fruit. This performance was followed by roles in Razzle Dazzle, The Insect Comedy, The Climate of Eden, Take a Giant Step, Jane Eyre, and The Power and The Glory. In 1959, she opened the acclaimed musical Once Upon a Mattress, originating the role of Queen Aggravain alongside Carol Burnett and Joseph Bova. She won an Obie Award in 1971 for sustained achievement.
Jane was born to Walter Francis White, a notable civil-rights leader and national secretary of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955, and Gladys Leah Powell. She grew up in the fashionable Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem at 409 Edgecombe Avenue. The house was nicknamed "The White House of Harlem" because of the prominent and important figures who were part of her parents' circle. She had one brother, Walter Carl Darrow White.
In 1945, White secured her first part playing the lead role of "Nonnie" in the Broadway production of Strange Fruit. The play was an adaptation of the controversial novel about interracial love in the South. She was originally recommended for the part by Paul Robeson, a friend of the White family. The play opened to mixed reviews, but both White and the play received positive attention from Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady, who wrote her own review in her column My Day. Of White's performance, Roosevelt wrote: "I should like to pay tribute to the cast of this play as a whole, but particularly to Jane White whose first venture this is on the stage and who plays her part with restraint and beauty."
White continued to work steadily in theatre and occasionally in television and movies from the 1970s through the 2000s. Her theatrical work has spanned summer stock, off-Broadway and on-Broadway shows. Much of her work was in classical dramas, with particular focus on Shakespeare; she won an Obie Award for her roles in the 1965-66 New York Shakespeare Festival as Volumnia in Coriolanus and the Princess of France in Love's Labour's Lost.
She won the 1988-89 Los Angeles Critics Circle Award for her role as the Mother in Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding. She has additionally played roles in such dramas as Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis and Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts; comedies such as Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet; and musicals such as Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and the 2001 production of Sondheim's Follies, to name a small selection.
In addition to the productions of Once Upon a Mattress, her television work included a 1979 stint on the soap operas The Edge of Night, A World Apart, and Search for Tomorrow. She was one of the first African-American actresses to play a role under contract on soap operas when she originated the role of Lyndia Holliday, R. N. on The Edge of Night. In 1998 she played the schoolteacher Lady Jones in the movie version of Toni Morrison's Beloved. From 1979-80, White starred in a self-written, one-woman cabaret show entitled Jane White, Who?, which interspersed autobiographical anecdotes and personal reminiscence with songs. As recently as 2006, she continued to perform occasionally in cabaret theater.
White attended Smith College beginning in the early 1940s. At the beginning of her freshman year, a fellow student in White's dormitory, who was white, told Smith that she would leave the school unless White were forced to leave. She said she refused to share a dormitory with a woman of color. The college told the girl she was free to leave, but White would remain enrolled and in her current rooming situation. The startled roommate elected to stay. White majored in sociology at Smith, but found herself increasingly drawn to musical theatre. She studied voice and acting during her time there as well. She was the first African-American president of Smith's House of Representatives, which was part of the Student Government Association.
In 1962, White met the New York restaurateur Alfredo Viazzi, and after a short courtship they were wed. They moved to Europe in 1965, but moved back to the U.S. in the late 1960s. Viazzi died of a heart attack on December 28, 1987, aged 66.
Jane White died on July 24, 2011, in New York City, aged 88.