Louis Peterson

(b. 1922)

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(b. 1922), film and television screenwriter, and playwright.

If one were to summarize the forty-year career of Louis Stamford Peterson, Jr., in one word, it would be “passages.” Peterson's play of the 1950s, Take a Giant Step, earned him acclaim in American theater. Since that time, he has released a play every decade. He strongly believes that people write out of what they do best, and that “best” means maintaining ethical standards learned from childhood.

Born 17 June 1922 in Hartford, Connecticut, Peterson grew up in a middle-class, multiethnic neighborhood. White immigrants were dominant but Peterson never felt deterred from aspiring for high ideals. He was trained by his parents to value education and the Protestant work ethic. Louis Stamford Peterson, Sr., worked as a bank guard and then as a money roller. His wife, Ruth Conover Peterson, accepted employment at a lunch counter in the same bank during the 1930s to insure that their two sons would acquire college educations. Peterson graduated from Bulkeley High School in 1940 and went south to attend Morehouse College (Atlanta, Georgia) from 1940 to 1944. He acted in collegiate productions, and upon graduation, Peterson spent a year at the Yale School of Drama and then enrolled in drama at New York University, where he earned a master of arts degree in 1947.

Acting classes at New York University eventually led Peterson to playwriting. He performed in A Young American and Our Lan', the latter taking Peterson to Broadway in 1947. However, he consistently found his character being lynched and became disturbed about these negative portraits of African Americans. He wrote two trial plays after Our Lan' and then studied playwrighting under Clifford Odets. While touring with Members of the Wedding, Peterson completed Take a Giant Step.

The play opened on 28 November 1953 on Broadway and ran for seventy-two performances that left an indelible mark on American theater. This adolescent play is set in New England in the 1950s and is reminiscent of Peterson's childhood of growing up black in white suburbia. Critics of this period interpreted the painful rite-of-passage experience of seventeen-year-old Spencer “Spence” Scott as his sexual awakening and transition into manhood. However, in the 1990s, critics recognize that the social factor of Spence's race is the subtext informing his feeling of ostracism by his white classmates and his precipitating subsequent sexual initiation into manhood. Take a Giant Step was listed in Best Plays of 1953–1954, ran Off Broadway for 264 performances in 1956, and was made into a film in 1958, which Peterson cowrote with Julius Epstein.

The decades from 1960 to 1980 represent disparate passages during which Peterson attempted to reclaim the scintillating power of subject that he had attained with Giant. He became the first African American screenwriter in Hollywood, but he also found himself subject to its vicissitudes and left in the 1960s. Coupled with Hollywood's instability, Peterson found East Coast theatergoers always expecting another Giant. One problem of his 1960s and 1970s plays was Peterson's adoption of intricate plots.Entertain a Ghost, a dual-plotted story about a self-absorbed young woman determined to become an actress, opened at the Actors Playhouse on 9 April 1962 to poor reviews. Crazy Horse, the story of an interracial marriage between a black journalist and white woman during the 1950s, enjoyed a brief stint at the New Federal Theater during November 1979.


Subjects: Literature.

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