Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Dark Shadows wasn't Beverly Hope Atkinson's strangest credit

If you were an actor working in New York City during the Nixon years -- and had any kind of success -- you found yourself working on some weird projects. Mitchell Ryan crossed swords onstage with Christoper Walken in the Greek classic "Iphigenia At Aulis." Lara Parker was in "Hi, Mom!," one of Brian DePalma's earliest (and still strangest) movies, alongside a very young Robert DeNiro. And both Thayer David and Christopher Pennock found themselves acting in the very first Merchant Ivory Production, "Savages." It was a wild time.

Beverly Hope Atkinson's career was no less weird. Atkinson was the first person of color to appear on DARK SHADOWS with dialogue, granting her an outsized presence in our memories. Ask a random fan and they'll probably remember her, perhaps even believing that she was in more than that one episode broadcast Aug. 21, 1968. (She was credited only as "nurse.") A year would go by before another person of color (Henry Judd Baker) appeared on screen in DARK SHADOWS. Unlike Atkinson, though, Baker lingered in Collinsport for a few episodes ... but was given no dialogue. That's just what television looked like in those days: blindly white.

Atkinson died in December, 2001, of cancer. Her obituary in the 2001-2002 edition of Theater World reveals that she was a student of Lee Strasberg and a member of the Actors Studio, Cafe LaMama in New York, and Theater West on Los Angeles, and that her career included international tours of "Skin of Our Teeth" and "Tom Paine" in London. Her stage credits also include "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Lysistrata" and "The Blacks" at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Wikipedia paints a much more distressing, though hardly surprising, portrait of her career. Before her stage work is even mentioned, the anonymous author explains that Atkinson was best known for "playing women down-on-their-luck or caught up in drug addiction." Acting is hard work. Acting for women is even harder, and if you're going to try to do all of those things while also being black? You'd better goddamn love the job because it's rarely ever going to love you back.

Things are better today ... but better does not automatically equal "good." I feel like that needs to be said, if for no other reason than to preemptively fend off Facebook comments from people who believe institutional racism is a thing of the past.

Beverly Hope Atkinson and Joseph Kaufmann in HEAVY TRAFFIC, 1973.
Which brings me to Atkinson's most memorable screen credit: "Carole" in Ralph Bakshi's 1973 feature film HEAVY TRAFFIC. The film combines live action and animation to Bakshi's usual provocative effect, one that initially earned the film an X rating upon release. The story follows a young cartoonist who finds inspiration in the seedy cast of characters surrounding him in pre-Giuliani New York. I don't know that I'm equipped to comment on Bakshi's animation, but ... it's something, all right. You can watch a clip below if you're feeling daring. Ralph Bakshi is one of those filmmakers I'd describe as "important," but that doesn't make his work any less icky.

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