Walter Dallas was friends with James Baldwin, August Wilson, and Denzel Washington.
He had the deep connections that could bring those powerful stars of literature, playwriting, and acting to work with him at Philadelphia’s New Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street.
Yet during the 25 years he directed and taught in Philadelphia, he scarcely mentioned the big names he knew, Philadelphia actor Joliet Harris said.
“He didn’t lord that over our heads,” she said. “It didn’t matter who he knew, where he had traveled, or what he had done. In that moment, he was there about Freedom Theatre.”
He put just as much energy into drawing out the potential of unknown actors as he had when working with better-known talents like Viola Davis, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, or Clarice Taylor.
Mr. Dallas, 73, a giant in American theater, the “heartbeat of Philadelphia theater,” and a guiding force in African American theater, died Sunday, May 3, of pancreatic cancer in Atlanta, his hometown.
He was educated at Morehouse College, where he studied music and theology, and at the Yale School of Drama, where he earned a master’s in fine arts. He also studied theology at Harvard University Divinity School.
Mr. Dallas had been working with New York theaters such as the Negro Ensemble Company, the Lincoln Center Theater, and the New Federal Theatre when the University of the Arts asked him to create and lead its new School of Theatre in 1983.
“What he could bring out of actors was stunning,” said Barbara Silzle, executive director of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, who met Mr. Dallas when both worked at UArts.
“He was a brilliant director, an amazing communicator with actors and people," she said. "He had a way of having us all know ourselves better and be braver in our work, our life, and our relationships.”
While teaching and directing at UArts, Mr. Dallas also directed plays at the Freedom Theatre, where he created its production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity.
He also worked with the Philadelphia Drama Guild, directing plays by August Wilson and Zora Neale Hurston at the Zellerbach Theater at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1992, after almost 10 years at UArts, Mr. Dallas became artistic director at Freedom Theatre after the death of founder John E. Allen Jr.
In 2008, he left the Freedom to teach and direct at the University of Maryland. He won numerous awards and worked internationally.
In 2017, Mr. Dallas won the Audelco Best Director Award in New York for Autumn, a play by Richard Wesley. In 2016, he won its National Achievement Award for Excellence in Black Theater.
He had a small, uncredited role as Denzel Washington’s father in the 1993 film Philadelphia.
Mr. Dallas moved back to Atlanta a few years ago, and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, friends said.
Ozzie Jones, a Philadelphia-area director and playwright, was one of those unknown artists Mr. Dallas bolstered when he hired him at Freedom Theatre, right out of college.
“Every major opportunity I’ve been given in my life has been given by men and women like Walter Dallas,” said Jones, now director of the Shipley School Middle School Performing Arts program.
“To be brutally honest," Jones said, “one of the things weighing on my heart about his passing is the reality that if you are a black man in theater, if there aren’t people like Walter Dallas [to open doors]… it can be hard.”
Kash Goins, an African American actor and director in Philadelphia, said Mr. Dallas gave him the confidence to work in the theater at age 26, after he’d completed college with a business degree.
“He was my artistic mentor, a great supporter, and a wealth of inspiration,” said Goins, founder of the production company GoKash OnStage.
“He’s the person I attribute most of my theater education to, and he’s the reason I found the confidence to be a professional theater-maker," Goins said.
Goins attended a performance of Black Nativity and decided to take acting lessons at Freedom Theatre.
Goins took one acting class, which Mr. Dallas observed. Later, his teacher told him Mr. Dallas “wants to work with you."
“That was more than just the launchpad, the light where we can point to. That statement [from Mr. Dallas] was driving fuel that serves me to this day,” he said.
There are similar testimonials all over Facebook.
“The theater world has lost a giant. One of the kindest and most generous of men. A director, a playwright, a mentor, a teacher," wrote Paula Cizmar, a writer.
“Walter was the heartbeat of Philadelphia theatre,” wrote Owen Brown Jr., who taught at Freedom Theatre.
“From the first instruction he gave me on stage, I knew I was in the presence of a genius,” wrote Jos Duncan, a Philadelphia filmmaker.