Yale '62 - Obituaries - Errol Gaston Hill

Errol Gaston Hill

Born: August 5, 1921
Died: September 15, 2003

Errol G. Hill was born in Trinidad, West Indies, the son of Thomas David and Lydia Gibson Hill. Long before coming to Yale, Errol had an extensive and accomplished career in acting and the theater in Trinidad and the West Indies. In the early 1950's he received a scholarship to study in England where he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. While in England, he directed plays with international students and served as an announcer for the BBC program "Calling the Caribbean" which was broadcast to the West Indies.

Errol entered Yale as a special Rockefeller Foundation Student at the Drama School in 1958. He earned his B.A. (Summa Cum Laude) with our class in 1962 as well as his M.F.A. in theater history and play writing from the Drama School in the same year. He was awarded the D.F.A. by Yale in 1966. Unfortunately while in New Haven, he and his wife experienced the housing discrimination against African Americans prevalent at the time.

Branford College residents will recall his spirited production of Goldoni's "Mistress of the Inn," staged in the dining hall. His famed musical "Man Better Man," was twice staged at the Drama School. The cast of one performance included classmate Phil Proctor.

After his years in New Haven, Errol continued his extraordinary career with teaching positions in the West Indies, in Nigeria and at City University of New York prior to joining the faculty at Dartmouth in 1968, where he led the drama program and was named the John D. Willard Professor of Drama and Oratory. He served as department chairman for several years and was the first tenured African American faculty member.

Over the course of his life, Errol produced and directed over 120 plays and pageants in the West Indies, England, the United States and Nigeria with amateur, semi-professional and professional companies.

In the world of academia and scholarship, Errol was prolific right up until his death. He wrote 11 plays, authored or edited 15 major books and periodicals (many of which won professional association and national awards), and wrote 25 major articles on drama and theater history. He was also responsible for researching and writing 83 entries in "The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre" in 1993 and 33 entries in "The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre" in 1988.

His study of the African American and Caribbean theater earned him worldwide acclaim and a reputation as the foremost historical scholar in these fields. His historical research produced such groundbreaking works as: "The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre" (1972), "The Theater of Black Americans" (1980), "Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors" (1984), "The Jamaican Stage 1655-1900: Profile of a Colonial Theatre" (1992), "Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre" (1994), and the recently published "A History of African American Theatre" (2003) co-authored with James V. Hatch.

Errol served on the Executive Committees of the American Society for Theater Research and the American Theater and Drama Society and was a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theater. He was an Evaluator for the National Association of Schools of Theater, a Visitor to the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard University, and a former president of the Dartmouth Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. He served as visiting professor at universities in England, Canada, and the United States. In 1983, he was named the Chancellor's Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Berkeley and, in 1994, he was named the Mellon Visiting Professor at Tulane University. In 1999, he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of the West Indies in recognition of his scholarship related to Caribbean plays and playwrights.

Among his numerous awards were British Council and Fulbright Scholarships, and fellowships from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations, The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Theater Guild of America. He won the Bernard Hewitt Prize for theater history, the Bertram Joseph Award for Shakespeare Studies, and a Gold Medal in Drama from the Government ofTrinidad and Tobago. In 1991, Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal from Dartmouth for outstanding leadership and achievement.

Professor Hill has been credited with sparking the modern era in theater in the Caribbean. As early as the mid-1940's he founded a West Indian acting company (the Whitehall Players, 1946, with the international dramatic actor Errol John). "The Caribbean Writer" (USVI, 2001, Vol.15) recently noted, "When the urgency for plays with West Indian themes and language became apparent, Hill not only wrote his own, but also advanced Caribbean drama with notable innovations. He utilized the vernacular, a radical and controversial departure for the time, and incorporated aspects of Trinidadian and Caribbean culture."

His plays "Ping Pong" (1958) featured steel band players, and "Wey Wey" (1958) focused on the Trinidadian Chinese numbers game. "Dance Bongo" (1965), written in free verse, included the ritual dance for the dead. His most famous play, "Man Better Man" (1964), which represented Trinidad and Tobago at the 1965 Commonwealth Festival in Britain, used rhymed calypso verse with traditional chants and original music.

Asked about his careers as actor, teacher, historian, director, and playwright, Hill said recently, "At different stages of my life certain things were more important to me. I enjoyed directing a lot because I could choose plays that I wanted to do, from every conceivable period of theater, and I had the freedom to do them with the best available students, talented students. That was wonderful. Acting and directing. I loved that, but nobody was getting the history right; nobody was interested in what went before. So I started it, it had to be done. Whenever I felt there was a need, I took it on."

Errol married Grace Hope of Barbados, West Indies in 1956. He is survived by his wife of 47 years, who resides in Hanover and has been a teacher of movement and dance for over 40 years and by their four children: Da'aga Hill Bowman of Arlington, VA, an attorney with the Washington Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; Melina Hill Walker of Hanover, NH, a public heath planner; Claudia Hill of New York, NY, an art and architecture cataloger at Avery Library, Columbia University; and Aaron Hill of New York, NY, an investment banker. He is also survived by a brother, Randolph Hill of Brooklyn, NY, two sisters, Lydia Hill of Brooklyn, NY and Jean Sue Wing of Santa Cruz, Trinidad, and three grandchildren.

The family requested that memorial gifts be made to the Scholarship Fund established at Dartmouth in his name in 2002 to honor his contributions to theater and to attract and support talented students of diverse backgrounds to pursue study in drama, history or related fields. The address is Errol G. Hill Scholarship Fund, Dartmouth College, 6066 Development Office, Hanover, NH 03755.