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University Mourns Legendary Theater Educator

Acclaimed artist James Spruill dead at 73

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James Spruill, a retired CFA associate professor, in 1998. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

To say that James Spruill, a retired College of Fine Arts associate professor of theater arts, was a renaissance man would be an understatement. Over the course of a five-decade career, Spruill, who died of pancreatic cancer on December 31 at age 73, made his mark as an actor, a director, and a leader in the African American theater community. But he is being remembered today first and foremost as an impassioned, dynamic educator—a man who taught and mentored generations of theater majors at BU.

“Jim Spruill was unfiltered, provocative, nurturing, challenging, and, most of all, devoted to his students and the art of teaching acting,” recalls Nina Tassler (CFA’79), a BU trustee and president of CBS Entertainment. “I remember always feeling secure in his class; he allowed us to be daring and encouraged us to take risks.”

Spruill (CFA’75) came to Boston as an actor in the mid ’60s, joining the Theater Company of Boston, a young company that included Paul Benedict and Stockard Channing. Decades later, Spruill would recall, “I knew I wasn’t going to Hollywood to make black exploitation movies, so I decided I needed a teaching credential.” He enrolled in the School of Theatre to pursue an MFA in directing in 1968, the same year the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) was assassinated. He was the first person to receive the Martin Luther King, Jr., Fellowship, established by BU trustees to honor King’s ideals and awarded annually to an outstanding African American graduate student.

In his first year at BU, Spruill cofounded, with fellow actor Gus Johnson, the New African Company, a Boston-based theater company that continues to operate today. For more than four decades, the company has mounted the work of African American playwrights on stages across Boston, as well as in schools, colleges, prisons, and hospitals. Part of their motivation in founding the company, Spruill said, was to give African American actors a reliable showcase to display their talents.

In 1976, Spruill joined the CFA faculty, and over the next three decades taught classes in acting, directing, theater history, and literature. He retired in 2006. William Lacey, a CFA professor emeritus of theater, voice, speech, and acting and former director of the School of Theatre, was Spruill’s graduate thesis advisor. Lacey says Spruill brought an extraordinary sensitivity to his work as a teacher.

“Many speak of the dignity of the individual,” says Lacey, “but few passionately give themselves over to the means of instilling and nurturing that dignity in the young. Jim understood the frightful adolescence that many confronted and sought to open doors. He did so in his teaching as well as through community action.”

Upon learning of Spruill’s death, former students were quick to recall both his talent on stage and his gift for mentoring. Tony Award–winning actor Jason Alexander (CFA’81, Hon.’95), who appeared with Spruill in a BU production of Othello in 1980, fondly remembers his former teacher. “Jim was particularly kind and supportive of me while I was at BU,” Alexander says. “His focus and critique were the most practical and transformative of any I was privy to during my training there.” Alexander says Spruill was an “odd, passionate, kind, dedicated man and artist. I would like to think he has made a profound impression on many of his students and fellow artists.”

Gregg Ward (CFA’82), another student who shared the stage with Spruill in Othello, recalls that Spruill was “mesmerizing” in the title role. “He made an incredibly powerful impression on many,” he says.

In addition to his many performances in Boston theater, Spruill appeared on television, including in an acclaimed PBS version of Richard Wright’s Native Son, and in several movies, among them the Steven Spielberg (Hon.’09) film Amistad. He also had roles in several films made by his son, Robert Patton-Spruill (CAS’92, COM’94), including Squeeze and Body Count.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Spruill received many accolades, including the prestigious Eliot Norton Award. In 2003, he was honored with CFA’s Distinguished Faculty Award.

Speaking of his longtime friend and former colleague, Lacey recalls a man who “loved a theater that was generous and full-blooded, if nuanced, and went for it in his work.”

Plans for a celebration of James Spruill’s life are under way and will be posted on CFA’s website when available. Remembrances may be sent to his son, Robert Patton-Spruill, 88 Lambert Ave., Boston, MA 02119.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

9 Comments

9 Comments on University Mourns Legendary Theater Educator

  • Anonymous on 01.10.2011 at 6:28 am

    James Spruill was an exemplary American and a maverick in his field of theatre arts. As an educator and community activist, he opened doors for African American artists when most doors were shut. Kudos to Boston University for recognizing Spruill’s talent and nurturing his career over many decades.

  • Kate Poole Murray on 01.10.2011 at 9:03 pm

    Jim Spruill

    Jim was one of my favorite, most impacting teachers of my life. I still tell stories of his classroom direction and audience participation to my theatre students. Especially recalling fond memories of his participation as an audience member at university productions. He would speak to us in the midst of producton, reaching out to our characters, joining the life of the play. Jim taught me so much both as an actress, a teacher and most of all of the joy of being an expressive human being. I will miss him terribly. What a loss for us all. His laughter will forever ring in my heart.

  • Abu Lo (aka Logan) on 01.11.2011 at 4:10 am

    Jim Spruill

    I prefer the word ‘generous’ to describe Jim. He was actually on of the good guys. He was also infectious; you wanted to be like him in some way. He gave me a chance and I ran with it. The art, love, talent and skills of theatre are still with me today. He turned ‘Black Theatre’ into theatre for Black People. At the same time, he turned people (generally) on to theatre and turned theatre on to people. We were, in a profound sense, family. I only hope his son and my sone continue the tradition of what he (with God’s help) put into motion.
    May God be pleased with him, grant him full forgiveness and grant him peace.

  • Anonymous on 01.12.2011 at 10:58 am

    james spruill

    A kind, sweet, and gentle man, friendly and outgoing, and genuinely humble before his art. He carried an aurora of goodness about him. I am grateful for the Whenever I saw him, I looked forward to his quick smile and gentle wit. I will miss him so much.

  • Anonymous on 01.13.2011 at 6:40 pm

    Precious memories. How they linger.

  • Anonymous on 01.13.2011 at 6:42 pm

    Emerson College. My first acting teacher at Emerson College in Boston. He seemed to enjoy my singing as well as my acting potential. Precious memories, how they linger.

  • Anonymous on 01.27.2011 at 1:02 pm

    James Spruill

    James did something really magical for me as a 20 year old, that still is with me today: he deeply expressed, through his loving, intense gaze, a belief in me, that translated into a belief in myself. While I left the world of theatre a long long time ago, he planted the seed, and it was a precious gift. He also planted another seed– casting a white girl in a black theatre production– fueling a belief in tearing down preconceived notions of acting, race and cultural categories. He had a huge impact in my life, and I am so grateful to have had known him.

  • Michael Billups on 01.28.2011 at 6:08 pm

    A Tremendous Influence

    Jim Spruill influenced my life more than, I’m sure, anyone knows. It was a privilege to be under his tutelege my freshman year at Emerson College and from that encounter in that brief moment in time, I learned from Mr. Spruill communication and directorial skills that have served me with great success both in my career and in my personal life. I am so grateful for the time I was blessed to have the honor of learning from him. That part of James Spruill that became such a part of me lives on. Thanks Jim. – M Billups, Emerson College ’74

  • ralph arzoomanian on 07.12.2011 at 10:56 pm

    I am greatly saddened to have heard of Jim,s passing all these months after the fact. I believe that one of Jim’s first professional jobs was in a play I wrote, The Coop, that ran off broadway in l966. I vividly recall how great a guy he was to work with and how much I enjoyed being around him during and after rehearsals. For many years now I have wondered how he made out after the show went down. I find he had a distinguished career at my alma mater, B.U., but I’m not surprised. Not at all. He had a generosity of spirit and a wonderful talent that was and is unusual in the somewhat daunting life of the theatre. I would have loved to stay in touch with him but that’s the way it goes. I’m so pleased that students and colleagues revered him so. I’ve kept his picture close by for the last few days-it’s been almost fifty years-such is the residue of a shared great experience in the distant past.

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