CORNELIA BAILEY, CHAMPION OF AFRICAN-ROOTED CULTURE IN COASTAL GEORGIA
Cornelia Bailey, a vivid storyteller who fought to protect a vanishing slice of African-American culture on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia, died on Oct. 15 in Brunswick, Ga. She was 72.
Inez Grovner, president of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, which Ms. Bailey helped found and where she was vice president, confirmed the death. The cause was not announced.
Ms. Bailey was among a shrinking number of people to have been born and educated on the island, where descendants of slaves have lived for generations, the isolation of island life allowing them to retain elements of West African traditions, language and religion that have become known as Gullah-Geechee culture.
That culture has been threatened over the decades by dispersion and, most recently, development pressures and high taxes. Ms. Bailey, as the unofficial historian of Sapelo, was among the leaders of efforts to preserve and pass along the island’s heritage, ends that she furthered through advocacy, entrepreneurialism and activities that included a fall cultural festival.
“She would always present the culture to anyone she could get across to,” said her friend Carletha Sullivan of the McIntosh County Shouters, a performance group that practices the tradition known as ring shouting. “If she knew someone who could do something pertaining to the Gullah-Geechee culture, she would always try to open a doorway for them.”
Ms. Bailey’s main preservation achievement may have simply been telling the stories of her ancestors and her own life, something she did eloquently in the memoir “God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia” (2001, with Christena Bledsoe).
“Back in my youth in the 1940s and 1950s,” she wrote in the book, “we had five Geechee communities on Sapelo and more than 450 people. Today, we have one community left and fewer than 70 people; and I fear for the survival of my people on this island.”
Cornelia Walker Bailey was born on June 12, 1945. Her father, Hicks Walker, often worked for R. J. Reynolds Jr., the tobacco heir, at the mansion he owned on the island. The house had been the centerpiece of a plantation where, in the early 1800s, Thomas Spalding used slave labor to grow cotton, rice and sugar cane.
Ms. Bailey’s mother, Hettie Bryant, was, like many in the community, a believer in spirits; when the eyeglasses that she was sure she had left on a particular table would disappear, she would suspect a long-dead uncle of having moved them.
“Mama would call on the spirit of Uncle Shed to put her glasses back,” Ms. Bailey wrote, “and then she’d go and do her work and come back, and those glasses would be on the table right where she left them.”
Sapelo, which is about 11 miles long and part of a chain of barrier islands, is accessible only by boat or air. Today, almost all of it is owned by the state, but in the decades after the Civil War former slaves and their descendants bought land there and established several settlements. Ms. Bailey grew up in one of these, Belle Marsh, and wrote of a childhood that was both idyllic and rugged.
The family cooked with a wood stove, the dishes a genuine version of the Gullah cuisine trend now evident along the coast. They had, she wrote, “what most people would call an ‘outhouse’ but we called a ‘toilet,’ because we still used a few words from the French era of Sapelo and that was one of them.”
She would tell the story of how, when she was 3, she died — or so it appeared. She had become sick after eating unripe pears and seemed to expire. Her parents, who had already seen two infant sons die of fever, were preparing to bury her — they had a coffin made — when her mother’s sister, Mary, operating on some sixth sense, got some crushed garlic, “packed it in my nose, my mouth and God only knows where else, and I came around.”
After that, she said, everyone thought she had a some sort of special gift, an expectation that she could find burdensome.
“I just wanted to be a normal kid,” she wrote. “I didn’t want to be able to see the future or predict whether someone was gonna have a baby boy or girl. The only signs I wanted to read were the signs Papa could read from nature, like when the tide is right for fishing.”
Ms. Bailey traced her family to a man named Bilali Muhammad, an important slave on the Spalding plantation who is thought to have come from West Africa by way of the Caribbean and, like many other slaves, was a Muslim, a heritage evident in the distinctive Gullah-Geechee adaptations to the Christianity of their slave masters. When she was young, Ms. Bailey noted, children were taught to pray facing east; Sapelo women covered their hair in church.
Growing up, Ms. Bailey absorbed Gullah-Geechee culture even as she watched it shrink. It disappeared entirely from other barrier islands, and on Sapelo it was consolidated into one community, Hog Hammock, where she and her husband, Julius, acquired several pieces of property. They operated a guesthouse, the Wallow, and gave history-filled tours to visitors.
Ms. Bailey’s preservation battle was a difficult one, as young people left the island in search of higher education and jobs. In 1910 the island had a black population of 539; by 1970 it was estimated at 175, and when a reporter for The New York Times wrote about the island in 2012, it was around 50.
The island’s school closed in the 1970s. More recently, Sapelo’s limited amount of private land caught the eye of well-off people looking for vacation properties. Ms. Bailey did not want to see it go the way of nearby islands like Hilton Head, S.C., with its yachts and golf courses, and was blunt about her preferences.
“On the verge of sounding racist,” she told The Times in 2008, “which I have been accused of, which I don’t give a hoot — I would rather my community be all black. I would rather have my community what it was in the ’50s.”
In 2012, Hog Hammock residents were hit with a substantial property tax increase that some felt was an effort to drive out the remaining Geechee residents. “I call it cultural genocide,” Ms. Bailey said in a video interview in 2013. Some tax relief was negotiated, though the issue remains a concern.
In 2004, Ms. Bailey received a Governor’s Award in the Humanities for her preservation work.
Survivors include her husband as well as several children and grandchildren.
Although Gullah and Geechee — terms whose origins have been much debated and may trace to specific African tribes or words — are often used interchangeably these days, Ms. Bailey always stressed that she was Geechee. And, specifically, Saltwater Geechee (as opposed to the Freshwater Geechee, who lived 30 miles inland).
“We thought our speech was a bit more musical than theirs,” she wrote in her book, “because we talked a little faster, with fewer rest stops between our words, so that everything ran together. We’d listen to them and say, ‘Can’t they talk any faster than that? People don’t have all day.’ ”
Ms. Grovner said Ms. Bailey had been instrumental in a continuing effort by the Sapelo Island cultural society to establish a Geechee historical village on 25 acres on the island, where visitors could see how people cooked, planted and lived in times past.
“Hopefully we can get it up and going on her behalf,” Ms. Grovner said.
ROY DOTRICE, NIMBLE BRITISH ACTOR FAMILIAR ON BOTH SIDES OF ATLANTIC
Roy Dotrice, a British stage, film and television actor who began performing as a prisoner of war in Germany and worked in Britain and America for six decades, notably in one-man shows portraying Abe Lincoln, the diarist John Aubrey and other historical figures, died on Monday at his home in London. He was 94.
His family confirmed the death, The Associated Press reported.
Hailed by critics for suffusing his character with fine-tuned blarney, malevolent passions and brooding gloom, Mr. Dotrice won the Tony Award for best featured actor in 2000 for his portrait of the conniving Irish father and pig farmer in an acclaimed Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” with Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones.
Reviewing the production in The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote, “To watch Ms. Jones, Mr. Byrne and Roy Dotrice, who completes the triangle of principal performers, react to one another is to realize the degree to which O’Neill’s last completed play is about how everyone is an actor, a deceiver, by necessity.”
Mr. Dotrice appeared in more than 50 plays in London, New York and other cities, not counting some 300 more as a young British repertory stalwart. He performed for nine years with the troupe that became the Royal Shakespeare Company, took scores of roles in television and Hollywood films, and became familiar to millions on television series and mini-series broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic.
With a nimble voice that evoked creatures from realms of fantasy, Mr. Dotrice was a popular storyteller on albums and audiobooks. He narrated the epic tales of “The Lion King,” the adventures of Richard Adams’s rabbits in “Watership Down” and the myriad characters of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the fantasy books by George R. R. Martin that were adapted for the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones.” He also had a small role in “Game of Thrones,” as Hallyne the Pyromancer, the head alchemist in the city of King’s Landing.
But Mr. Dotrice was perhaps best known for one-man shows, including “Brief Lives,” a portrayal of the 17th-century writer John Aubrey, which opened in London in 1967 and ran intermittently there and in the United States for years. Onstage for two and a half hours, his Aubrey ruminated insightfully on the lives of English worthies of his Elizabethan age. “Brief Lives” became one of the most successful solo productions of its generation, and won Mr. Dotrice a mention for a time in the Guinness Book of Records, with 1,782 nonconsecutive performances. (Hal Holbrook went on to give more nonconsecutive performances as Mark Twain.)
In another one-man tour de force, in 1980, Mr. Dotrice starred in Herbert Mitgang’s “Mister Lincoln” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, where Lincoln was slain in 1865, and later on Broadway and on PBS. He had immersed himself for months in Lincoln’s life, and colleagues said his renderings of Lincoln, and especially of the Gettysburg Address, were performances of remarkable subtlety and power. Mr. Mitgang, who wrote the play, was the author of two biographies of Lincoln. He also wrote for The New York Times.
“The role of Lincoln is probably one of the hardest to play of any historical character,” Frankie Hewitt, the play’s executive producer, told The Times. “If you try to humanize him, it can get corny and awkward, and if you try to play him larger than life, he is turned into a Disney World mechanical Lincoln. But Roy is such a superb actor, he succeeds where everyone else has basically failed.”
Roy Louis Dotrice was born on the Island of Guernsey, a British dependency off the French coast, on May 26, 1923, to Louis Dotrice, a Belgian pastry chef, and the former Neva Wilton, an English baker. In 1940, when Nazi troops occupied Guernsey, Roy and his mother escaped to Britain, where he joined the Royal Air Force and became a radio operator and gunner in a bomber.
On a raid in 1942, his plane was shot down over the Baltic. He and a few other survivors floated in a dinghy for days and were washed ashore. They were captured and spent the rest of the war as prisoners in Germany. To keep captive spirits up in the stalag, the prisoners staged makeshift plays. Mr. Dotrice’s first role was the Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella.”
“We didn’t have any real women, unfortunately,” he said.
After the war, he rejected a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and plunged into acting. For 12 years he performed in, and sometimes directed, hundreds of plays in repertory companies, often a new production every week, in a thespian grind of lines, characters, plots and venues: Liverpool, Manchester and, he said, “every dreary North Country town.”
In 1947, he married Katherine Newman, an actress. They had three daughters, Michele, Yvette and Karen, who all became actresses. His wife died in 2007. His daughters survive him, as do seven grandchildren and a great-grandson, The A.P. reported.
In 1957, Mr. Dotrice joined the forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and for nine years he appeared as Hamlet, Iago, Falstaff, Julius Caesar and other Shakespearean characters with casts that included future luminaries of the British theater, including Charles Laughton and Albert Finney.
While he kept a home in London, Mr. Dotrice lived in Los Angeles and worked mostly in the United States after 1980. He appeared in New York stage productions of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” (1985) and Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” (1991). On film, he portrayed Mozart’s father in Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” (1984) and a skating coach in Paul M. Glaser’s “The Cutting Edge” (1992).
On television, he played Charles Dickens in Masterpiece Theater’s 13-part “Dickens of London” (1976); a British monarch in the mini-series “Shaka Zulu” (1986); the father of the beast on the CBS crime series “Beauty and the Beast” (1987-90); and a priest on the CBS dramatic series “Picket Fences” (1993-96). In recent years he recorded many audiobooks, creating voices for hundreds of characters in the saga adapted for “Game of Thrones.”
Looking back on his career in an interview in 1980, Mr. Dotrice recalled one of his more unusual achievements: introducing baseball — learned from Canadian P.O.W.s during the war — to cricket-playing members of his Shakespeare troupe in 1959. He put together an “all-star” team to challenge Americans at a nearby air base.
“Paul Robeson played first base, Sam Wanamaker second and Laurence Olivier third,” he said. “Peter O’Toole was shortstop, Albert Finney was catcher, I pitched and Charles Laughton was umpire. We wore black tights and white Hamlet blouses. The women said, ‘Never mind the game, look at their legs.’”
An earlier version of this obituary misstated part of the name of the books by George R.R. Martin that were adapted for the television series “Game of Thrones.” It is “A Song of Ice and Fire,” not “Fire and Ice.”