HAATz Off to Pioneer Teachers of MPS Column
By Vicki Singh
The late Gerald Wallace will be recognized by the Historic African American Teachers (HAAT) of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) by naming their Historic African American Artistic Directors (HAAAD) Award for his artistic leadership and playwright talent. Gerald Wallace was instrumental in diversifying and enriching Milwaukee’s artistic offerings by interjecting the voice of Milwaukee’s African American artistic community a prolific playwright, Wallace created works that reflected the full range of the African American experience in this country.
On March 26, HAAT will honor ‘Historic African American Artistic Directors’ with the “Gerald Wallace Lifetime Achievement” Award at its luncheon #9. The recipients will be: Tejumola Ologboni, Ferne Y. Caulker Bronson, Constance Clark Reimer and Willie Abney. As directors of successful performing arts ensembles, each one of these honored talents had more than one opportunity to work with or to be directed by Wallace.
Background on Gerald Wallace
Gerald Leon Wallace was born on February 1,1938 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was reared at St Mark A.M.E. Church. He completed his high school education at Lincoln Junior and High School, currently known as Lincoln High School of the Arts. He went into the Army in the late 50’s and became part of an entertainment unit that appeared on the “Ed Sullivan” show. After the Army, he returned to Milwaukee, worked at various jobs, met his fi rst wife and moved to Chicago.
He continued his education focusing on the performing arts and theatre at Wilson College, in Chicago, IL and worked at Hull House before returning to Milwaukee in 1968, to continue building on his legacy of theatre and performing arts.
“Jerry (as he was affectionally called) was always an entertainer even when we were kids.” His sister Carol Wallace Conner’s remembers, when he was learning how to do stage make- up, he altered his appearance so much, that his father didn’t recognize him! “Daddy almost hit Him.” Carol said.
“Another time, he had a group of us doing Julius Ceasar at 4th Street School Social Center. Herbie Williams played Julius. When our friends and I were learning how to dance to ‘The Clock and Earth Angel’, Jerry was busy learning more Shakespeare. Out, out damn spot! He never learned how to dance.”
Jerry built a theatre in the basement of a housing project in Chicago. The family went down to see his production of ‘Amen Corner’ there. After several years, his marriage failed and he came home to Milwaukee. He was fired up and ready to introduce theatre to the African American community. He worked with Mrs. Bernice Lindsey, Willie Baldwin and many others, in an effort to get things started.
One of their efforts was a venue, called ‘A Studio Evening’. This entailed going into homes of possible backers and performing music, poetry and short excerpts of plays before the host and their friends. It was fun and it got them recognition, among people of influence. Eventually he connected with Dean Adolphus Suppan, at UW-Milwaukee and People’s Theatre emerged as a reality. After observing his work in the community, the former Dean of the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee School of Fine Arts, hired Jerry to provide community outreach through work with People’s Theatre.
Wallace built a 40 seat theatre in the basement of his office at 2208 North 3rd Street (now King Dr), it was used most of the time for rehearsals but some early projects were performed there.
The old Fred Miller Theatre, Vogel Hall of the Performing Arts Center, AC, Engleman Hall of UW-M and the Skylight Theatre, were some of the stages that blessed Milwaukee’s African American community, with a outlet for the enormous talent that had been hidden for a long time.
So many wonderful people came to life at People’s Theatre: Adolphus Ward, Morris Seawright, Carol Oldham, Connie Clark and Willie Abney, to name a few. They did “Amen Corner” at the Pabst Theatre and Claudia McNeal was the star.
Wallace served as the Artistic and executive director of People’s Theatre in 1968. People’s Theatre was the only African American theatre in the State of Wisconsin. His desire was to cultivate and bring the performing arts home to Milwaukee. Some of his early works in theatre included: Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, Amen Corner, Touch Me In the Morning, A Raisin in the Sun and I Am A Black Woman. Many theatre actors and actresses from Milwaukee, began acting or honed their skills at the People’s Theatre. In fact, the founder of Milwaukee’s African American Children’s Theatre began at the People’s Theatre – Connie Clark Reimer.
Wallace continued his legacy and commitment to the arts and children through his oral interpretation and literary performances, playing his flute and guitar. He also provided Oral Interpretation Workshops and African American History programs during the many years at People’s Theatre, the Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee County Libraries, and St. Mark A.M.E. Church, as well as taking his show on the road to prisons and other institutions around the State of Wisconsin.
Wallace was gifted in the performing arts and continued his legacy by expanding his repertoire. He was an avid photographer, shooting black and white prints and developing them himself. In the late 1980’s, he founded People’s Theatre Gallery, in the former AT& T building, on 4th and Wright Streets. During that time, he offered opportunities to local artists to exhibit and sell their works.
With grants from CETA and VISTA, he was able to provide employment for individuals with skills in sewing of costumes, carpentry-making of sets, designing of program booklets and all facets of producing a theatrical performance. He taught young people about theatre and these skills are valuable to this day. His nephew is a carpenter in Jacksonville, Florida.
He eventually researched other cultural and African cultures which led him to the Gullah community of South Carolina. He brought a group of them to Milwaukee to educate this community on the history of Gullah culture through spoken word, arts, crafts and cooking.
He provided classes to aspiring artists. The Gullah basket weavers from South Carolina taught classes in gallery.
Later in life, he carved beautiful walking sticks and shared his gifts with the Milwaukee community and various Milwaukee County libraries. His walking sticks have been on display at the Atkinson Library and other municipalities.
Wallace dedicated his life to serving youth, adults, seniors citizens and ultimately, worked tireless for the betterment of mankind. His final ministry was teaching oral interpretation skill to a group of women at St. Mark A.M.E. Church, for the ‘Women of the Bible’ presentation. He was employed with the UW-Milwaukee, contracted with MPS and completed his employment with Interfaith serving as a grant writer for Hickman Academy.
Wallace passed away June 11, 2007 at St. Joseph Hospital after a massive heart attack. His influence and impact are sorely missed in Milwaukee. “He made his dreams come to life and everyone around him benefited“ said Carol Wallace Conner.
Prior to HAAT’s March Luncheon, the group will host its February Luncheon #8 on Feb. 26 at Serb Hall, 5101 W. Oklahoma Ave. at 11:00 am-2:00 pm. The following honorees will be recognized: JoAlice Bender, Louis Palmer, Robert Crawford, Jim Foote, Lou T. Spearmon, Edna White, Christine Mitchell, Bea Beckley, Mamie Foster, Bennie Graham and Carry Banty.
In addition to honor HAAD the March 26, luncheon #9 will also honor photographer Harry Kemp and the following MPS pioneers: Mark Toles, Jean Nash, Classie Cox, Aquilla Ramsey, Ethel Berkley, Gloria Graham and Ethel Brunner. For more information about HAAT of MPS, call 414-551- 2107, tickets are $26.00