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Bernard J. Marsh, who founded LI theater company, dies at 77

Actor-director-writer Bernard J. Marsh fought against racial injustice

Actor-director-writer Bernard J. Marsh fought against racial injustice in the theater. Credit: Jerry Taliaferro

Actor, director and author Bernard J. Marsh, who fought racial injustice on the stage at every opportunity and founded a theater group on Long Island, died of cancer in Brooklyn on June 9. He was 77. 

"He was a person totally committed to the theater," said his sister, Joysetta Pearse, of Freeport. "He had great passion for everything about the theater … he was a remarkable talent, almost everybody who knows him knows he was stern but always fair."  

Marsh was a busy performer, appearing frequently in musicals like "The Wiz," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Eubie" and "Bubblin' Brown Sugar," both in New York and in companies that toured the nation and the world. He also had roles in movies, including "Malcolm X" (1992) and "The Cotton Club" (1984). Though he never got "big name recognition, he did a lot of work," said Pearse, noting that her brother died on the day of the 2019 Tony Awards, when his longtime friend André De Shields was honored as best featured actor for "Hadestown." 

In his role as a deputy for Actors Equity, Marsh became increasingly aware that black actors were not getting parts, not even being auditioned, for shows like "Les Miserables" and "The Phantom of the Opera." Finding that he could not address these issues sufficiently through the union, Pearse says he founded Performers Against Racism on the Theatrical Stage (PARTS). That organization took on a variety of issues, most notably the casting controversy with "Miss Saigon."

He also wrote on the subject, publishing "Great White Way/Great White Lies: (A Lie Can't Live Forever)" in 2008. Actress Lee Chamberlin called the book an important treatise on the "role race plays in the American theater." In her forward, she wrote that "Bernard Marsh espouses rock steady courage to question and assess challenging issues of racism existing in the theatrical performance arena." He also wrote a novel: "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes: Music Is the Soundtrack of My Life."

In recent years, the lifelong Brooklyn resident became active as a director and teacher, at 966 in Brooklyn and at the African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead, where he started the Living History Theater Group. Pearse, a manager at the museum, said the theater group focuses on plays that deal with civil rights and African culture. Going forward, the group will be renamed the Bernard J. Marsh Theatrical Workshop.

Marsh was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant on May 26, 1942, to a theatrical family, his father, Theodore Albert Marsh, was a comedian, and his mother, Dorothy Theresa Mooney Marsh, a dancer and singer. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn and got a bachelor's degree in theater and labor relations at SUNY Empire State College. Along with Pearse, he is survived by his brother, Brian Marsh of Brooklyn.

A celebration of Marsh's life was held on June 16 at the museum; donations in his memory can be made to The African-Atlantic Genealogical Society (TAAGS) to benefit the workshop.   

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