Celebrating Black History Month
As Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1969.
As Capulet’s Wife in Romeo and Juliet, 1968
As Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors, 1972.
Charlene Bletson broke a lot of ground at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
The first black actor at the Festival, she came to Cedar City during the summers of 1968 and 1969 while she was a student the University of California–Riverside. She performed Capulet’s Wife in Romeo and Juliet, Phebe in As You Like It, Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice, Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
After receiving her master’s degree in acting from Yale University in 1972, she returned to the Festival to play Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, Goneril in King Lear, and Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors. This Utah association led to her joining the University of Utah theatre faculty in 1973.
Her last work at the Festival was in 1977 when she returned to direct Romeo and Juliet, as the first black director.
R. Scott Phillips, who was the public relations director at the Festival in those early years, said that Bletson was a wonderful person, actor, and director. “She just commanded the stage,” he said. “She came on that stage, and she had a persona about her that was so commanding that she took over the stage. It was just electrifying.”
He also remembered that she “had an enormous, big smile, and her eyes just lit up when she smiled. She would get so excited about her work.”
Sadly, Bletson was born with a congenital heart defect, and she left Utah for New York in 1986 after doctors warned her that Utah’s high elevation was worsening her heart condition. She was performing Hedda G, a new play based on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, at a small theatre in the East Village when she collapsed and died. She was 44.