Sorry for the delay posting: I was on vacation in Mexico and have also been recovering from a near-death experience: 19 blood transfusions.
But great news! Someone from Donyale Luna’s distant past has emerged from the ethers of the cyberworld to fill us in on the diva’s final days in Detroit and her beginnings in New York. Karen Miller (she was Karen Roscup then) appeared with Donyale in several plays for the Detroit Civic Center Theater, including Stage Door, The Music Man, Anything Goes (one performance) and Moliere’s Servant of Two Masters.
More great news: Karen was not only an actress (and makeup artist) but a photographer. We are indebted to her for the only known photos of Donyale before she left for New York—seven vintage shots from Detroit Civic productions, six of them unpublished before— which she has graciously agreed to share with us. Donyaleluna.wordpress.com WORLDWIDE EXCLUSIVE: Photos of Donyale, 1964, by Karen Roscup. Please, don’t rip them off without Karen’s permission. (To ask permission, send a comment to this site.)
Miller was probably Donyale’s closest girl friend during this time. “I loved her from the moment I met her,” she says. “She was so beautiful and so sweet. And I could tell she was troubled. There was something secretive about her.” Donyale gave the two of them nicknames: Tyger Donyale and Tyger Karen (the ‘y’ spelling possibly reflected Blake’s poem). In remembrance, to this day Miller collects tigers.
The troupe had a repertoire of 10 plays, which they performed at Ford Auditorium and Wayne State University’s MacGregor Auditorium. In summer they mounted productions in the parks around Detroit—Patton, Chandler, Palmer, even the State Fairgrounds—and in the Jeffrey Projects, where kids threw eggs at the performers. “We just dodged them and laughed,” says Miller.
Young Donyale aspired to becoming a great actress, “like Anna Magnani.” She told Miller she wanted to go to New York and appear before the footlights. Ironically, in New York she became instead the world’s foremost supermodel.
The consensus by those who saw Donyale on the Detroit stage was that her acting abilities were less than promising. This didn’t stop every director who met her from wanting her in his show. But none gave her high marks for her talent. Roland Sharette, who headed Detroit Civic productions, was diplomatic: “She was a personality,” he told Detroit News writer Yvonne Petrie: “It was the way she carried herself, loose and relaxed, and her large, expressive fawn’s eyes. She sang a sort of soprano. She was a natural born dancer.”
David Rambeau, her director at the Concept-East, an innovative, mostly-Negro theatre with an excellent critical reputation, didn’t mince words. “She was too tall and too young,” he said. “She was too frilly in her acting.” He liked Donyale, and agrees that she was “a striking personality” with “a stunning face.” But “her acting talent was virtually nil.”
Karen Miller does not disagree with these assessments. “But she was so graceful,” she says; “a beautiful dancer—a persona, a personality.”
Once, a couple months after Donyale and I had gone our separate ways, Karen Roscup had to drop out of a play at the Concept-East. Donyale stepped in to replace her. I was a “theatre critic;” that is, I reviewed plays for the Wayne State newspaper, and later for a brief metro daily that sprang up during a newspaper strike in 1964. I wound up reviewing Donyale Luna in this play.
Donyale was no worse than a lot of actresses in Detroit, but I thought she ruined the play just by walking onstage. Standing a head taller than her fellow actors, she declaimed all her lines in flawless diction, her voice like music, in the same breathless good cheer, no matter what emotion was called for. The audience got swept up in her charisma, all eyes followed her every move, and the play got swept out the window.
An easy trap in writing criticism is to become ruthless. If you think an actor is bad, you have to say it. But you can say it with compassion. I didn’t bring my heart into my reviews: I was arrogant then and full of judgment. My criticism was good, but good can be cruel when you are in the critic’s seat. “Truth,” or my rabid-student version of it, was worth more than personal relationships.
Donyale and my paths crossed a couple of times after the review. Did she ever read it? She acted as though she didn’t, and I assumed she hadn’t. Now, 45 years later, I know that she inhaled every word written about her, especially about her acting. My words must have landed like a kick in her stomach. Acting as though she hadn’t read them was Donyale the actress at her finest: she cast a spell on me that lasted 45 years! Donyale was a great actress, possibly the world’s greatest, in the role that she created: Donyale Luna.
Even as she faltered in the footlights, there was also another area where Donyale’s thespian talents shone: she was preparing to bring innovations from the stage to the runway.
Sanders Bryant, a teen boyfriend who hung with her family all his life—he still sees her sister Lillian from time to time—was undoubtedly her first photographer. He describes a technique that he and Donyale co-created called “Method Modeling,” based on Method Acting.
What was Method Modeling? Bryant, a student of Stanislavsky’s Method Acting, says a basic tenet is, “you don’t act, you react. Be yourself, and you can portray any kind of move. Modeling is just capturing in a moment what you would build up to in a scene. As a model, you have to pantomime it.” In other words, Method Modeling was Donyale working her way into the core moment, the all-encompassing Moment of Truth in the scene when the character’s soul is captured, and Bryant capturing it on film when it came.
Whose idea was Method Modeling, Bryant’s or Luna’s? Bryant charitably says, “I just put words to what she was already doing.” But elsewhere he alludes to her initial awkwardness before the camera. Donyale turned that awkwardness into a strange grace that the world had never seen before—with lots of input from Bryant, I’m sure: it was a joint venture.
She also, as we will see later, revolutionized the runway with it. Later, when Luna grew into mythological roles, she could still draw from Method Modeling to delve more deeply into her character.
Sanders Byant, conversation, Nov. 2009
Karen Miller, conversation & correspondence, March-April 2011
Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April 1966