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James Spruill, 73; actor and founder of influential black theater company

James Spruill starred with Al Pacino in a Boston production of “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel’’ in 1972. Mr. Spruill, who died Dec. 31, worked with many who went on to fame. James Spruill starred with Al Pacino in a Boston production of “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel’’ in 1972. Mr. Spruill, who died Dec. 31, worked with many who went on to fame. (Theatre Company of Boston)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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A few months after launching the New African Company, a groundbreaking black theater troupe in Boston, James Spruill sat in the living room of Globe theater critic Kevin Kelly nursing a gin and tonic, amber-tinted glasses on his face, a cigarette in his hand.

“There must be a black theater for the black community, our own voices in our own playwrights, and the more black rage the better,’’ Mr. Spruill told Kelly in October 1968, speaking in a resonant, stage-trained voice which was as restrained as the words were fierce.

“Black people,’’ he added quietly, “refuse to go around not being recognized any more.’’

With New African Company, which performed everywhere from resplendent venues to abandoned buildings, he brought plays highlighting the black experience to white audiences and professional acting to black audiences who might never venture into Boston’s Theater District.

Mr. Spruill, an influential theater teacher at Boston University for 30 years and an actor who shared the stage with the likes of Morgan Freeman and Al Pacino, died Dec. 31 in his son’s Roxbury home of pancreatic cancer. He was 73 and in retirement resided in Winchester, N.H., fulfilling a longtime wish to live in a log cabin on 40 acres.

His students at BU included many who went on to stardom, including Jason Alexander, who won a Tony Award and acted for many years on the television series “Seinfeld.’’ In 1980, he and Mr. Spruill acted in the university’s production of “Othello.’’

“Jim was particularly kind and supportive of me while I was at BU,’’ Alexander said in a statement released by the university. “His focus and critique were the most practical and transformative of any I was privy to during my training there.’’

Before turning to teaching, Mr. Spruill spent most of his time acting and was on stage during Freeman’s first New York City play in the 1960s.

“We had a good time working,’’ Freeman said. “It was a thrill a minute.’’

The production’s name has faded in the mists of memory, but Freeman recalled that he “suggested that when the play opened, we come out of the balcony on a rope.’’

“We knotted ropes and came on like circus performers,’’ he said.

Mr. Spruill was game for the approach and “was terrific,’’ Freeman said. “We enjoyed each other and were well-suited, I thought.’’

A willingness to do more than a role required was typical, said Mr. Spruill’s son, Robert Patton-Spruill, a filmmaker who lives in Roxbury.

“He was a true method actor,’’ his son said. “He was there to feel it, and he felt it through the performance. He was as real as it could be and would come off the stage so drenched with sweat from the lights and the energy. He wasn’t the biggest fan of movie acting at all, but on stage, he would kill himself like a game-day football player.’’

Mr. Spruill acted in his son’s movies and in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film “Amistad,’’ but he left no doubt his focus was on the stage. Among the many plays he acted in was “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel’’ in 1972 with Pacino. He devoted much time to New African Company, which he founded with Gus Johnson.

“We are building a theater that attracts people who are not regular theater-goers,’’ he told the Globe in 1970. “We are fighting dehumanization by TV, movies, and commercial theater.’’

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Spruill went to segregated schools before attending Goddard College, a progressive school in Plainfield, Vt., on a scholarship.

Interrupting his studies for prolonged periods of acting, he divided his time between Vermont and New York City, where in addition to acting with Freeman, Mr. Spruill was an understudy to Louis Gossett Jr. and appeared with others who became well-known in television and movies.

“I can’t remember ever watching television with him when there was a black actor on the screen that he didn’t have a story to tell about them together,’’ his son said.

Mr. Spruill initially left New York to join the Theater Company of Boston. In 1968, the year he founded the New African Company, he began serving as a host of WGBH radio’s “Say Brother,’’ which became “Basic Black.’’

He enrolled that year in a master of fine arts program in directing at BU. Mr. Spruill was the first to be awarded the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship for a graduate student and received his degree in 1975. The next year, he was hired to teach on the faculty of BU’s College of Fine Arts, where he remained until retiring in 2006.

Mr. Spruill’s first marriage ended in divorce. In an interview last summer, he recalled the night Lynda Patton, whom he married in 1974, first attended a New African Company performance. “I fell in love,’’ he said of his wife, a playwright who died Aug. 5. “She was all fire, and she could tell great stories.’’

The couple turned their home on the Dorchester-Roxbury line into a salon for creative types and a haven for those in need of help. Among those who stayed was Jean Connally, now of West Roxbury, who they raised as though he were their own son.

While churning creativity lent a looseness to many aspects of life at home, Mr. Spruill was firm about certain things, such as how everyone spoke.

“My dad had an incredibly deep voice,’’ Patton-Spruill said. “Imagine James Earl Jones, maybe not quite as deep, and perfect English. There was no such thing as a Boston accent in my house.’’

In addition to Patton-Spruill and Connally, Mr. Spruill leaves another son, Joshua of Roxbury, and four grandchildren.

Friends and colleagues will gather to celebrate Mr. Spruill’s life and career at 2 p.m. tomorrow in the Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts.

“Jim Spruill was unfiltered, provocative, nurturing, challenging, and, most of all, devoted to his students and the art of teaching acting,’’ Nina Tassler, a BU trustee who is president of CBS Entertainment, said in a statement released by the university.

Indeed, Mr. Spruill was always willing to speak his mind on provocative topics such as race, an issue that roiled Boston during many of his years acting and teaching in the city.

In 1989, he said in a Globe interview that black theater companies were necessary in Boston, in part to provide opportunities for actors of color.

“The other companies know of our existence, and when they look for a few blacks to fill roles where the speakers don’t say too much, then we hear from them,’’ he told the Globe. “That’s why we have theaters like the Black Folks Theater Company.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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