Obie Award-winning performer, director and poet Laurie Smith Carlos, who made an indelible mark on New York’s avant-garde theater scene before relocating to the Twin Cities in midlife and mentoring a generation of artists here, died Thursday of colon cancer. She was 67.
The Twin Cities artistic community was reeling Friday. “She’s a remarkable artist and it’s a big loss,” said Philip Bither, the senior performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center.
A multidisciplinary artist, Carlos won accolades for her dynamic range of work, from a 1977 Obie for her role in the original production of Ntozake Shange’s “For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf” to two New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) Awards as a choreographer of her original plays, to a 2004 Bush Foundation artistic fellowship.
Carlos was a member of Urban Bush Women, the acclaimed contemporary dance company that tells the stories of women of the African diaspora, and was a stage director who premiered works by young playwrights who would go on to fame, such as Suzan-Lori Parks.
Her artistic career brought the New York City native to the Twin Cities throughout the 1990s, where she took the stage at the Walker and the Guthrie, before moving here for a position at Penumbra Theatre Company in 1998.
“There’s no one that knew Laurie that wouldn’t call her a singular individual,” said Lou Bellamy, Penumbra’s founder. “She was her own person, her own artist; she put the world as she knew it on stage with real style and understanding, and she lived her art.”
As an artistic fellow at Penumbra, Carlos helped identify scripts to produce, with a goal of “bringing more feminine voices into the theater,” Bellamy said.
From there, she continued to amplify the voices of other artists as a longtime mentor with Naked Stages, a fellowship for emerging artists, currently based at Pillsbury House Theatre.
“She in many ways is an unsung hero to so many,” said Eleanor Savage, program director of the Jerome Foundation. She founded Naked Stages and knew Carlos for two decades.
“Many people think of her as an oracle,” Savage said, “because she talked in metaphorical, very poetic ways, but she was always delivering truth in whatever way she was communicating with you.”
Carlos also curated Pillsbury House’s Late Nite Series of new works by underground artists from both New York and Minnesota. The program “was a kind of a bridge between the two” theater scenes, said Pillsbury House co-artistic director Noël Raymond.
Between those two programs, Carlos supported hundreds of artists, many of them people of color.
Singer Mankwe Ndosi considered Carlos “one of my art mamas.” She said Carlos was an “old-school teacher, in that she was not always sweet and tender, but she would help you find the truth inside of you and pull that from you.”
Author Shannon Gibney met Carlos at a black writers’ retreat, where Carlos was a mentor delivering the hard truth to her charges. “She said something like, ‘I go into people’s houses and I burn them down.’ And what she was talking about was people’s artistic houses,” Gibney said. “She was just there, always mentoring, and always supporting, and always challenging.”
As an actor, Carlos cultivated a unique performance style that tapped into rhythmic gestures as much as text. Bellamy still uses that “gestural language” he learned from her at Penumbra.
Carlos was as much a force offstage, where she was constantly nurturing her community. She made it a tradition to cook large meals for artists and audiences before her shows. And she would smooth out conflicts behind the scenes. One oft-told story involved a tense time among staffers at Penumbra, which Carlos defused by gathering everyone together for a 15-minute session of laughter.
Carlos gave up her home base in St. Paul several years ago, but continued to work here, as well as New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. She came back here in September to narrate a play at In the Heart of the Beast puppet theater and was hospitalized after the show’s first weekend. That’s when she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
The next weekend, she was back on stage in what would be her final performance.
She is survived by her daughter, Ambersunshower Smith; sisters Donna, Riki and Neveley Smith, brother Iya Mariano Malango, and grandsons Zion, Tecumseh and Asher Smith. Services are pending.