H. German Wilson, 81, influential theater director

Posted: August 06, 2014

ODESSA SETTLES has fond memories of H. German Wilson and the impact he had on her life and the lives of others he met and challenged during more than 40 years in the theater and the arts.

Most of German's work was in Philadelphia, where he directed scores of plays, acted, sang and taught, and developed programs in public schools to help students find themselves through performance art.

He died Wednesday at age 81.

Odessa, a prominent folksinger and musician from Nashville, was a teenager when she met German, then the drama and English teacher at Cameron High School in Nashville.

"German had an overreaching vision to help young people use creativity as a form of expression," she said. "He believed that all children possess an innate creative spirit that if tapped would encourage self-love and an outflow of tension, which in turn would create an environment that is conducive to heightened growth and development."

Odessa might have been too young to fully appreciate the impact German had on her and her fellow students.

"In the beginning, with our limited scope, we could not imagine the significance of our meeting or how German's initiative and interventions would greatly impact our personal and professional lives," she said.

"The world will definitely have an enormous empty space with the loss of German," she added. "However, it is joyous to know that the tsunami impact he had made on thousands of individuals will never go unnoticed."

He was born Harold Franklin Wilson in Louisville. At Fisk University in Nashville, where he enrolled in 1956, his fellow pledges at Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity nicknamed him the "Little German" for some reason, and he liked it so much he officially changed his name to H. German Wilson.

German arrived in Philadelphia in 1971 and served as a drama director for the Model Cities Cultural Arts Program, based at the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in North Philadelphia.

He became the first director of the Eakins Workshop, an outreach program of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and later founded the Philadelphia School of Performing Arts.

From 1976 to 1991, German was performing-arts coordinator at Community College of Philadelphia, conducting the drama workshops, as well as coordinating performances of African, modern and jazz dance.

In 1987, German founded Venture Theater in North Philadelphia. As its first artistic director, he directed countless productions, many reflecting African-American themes.

He also helped establish the Theater for Learning at Venture, a public-school-outreach program, and Playwright Connection, a project that supported new playwrights by providing a venue for productions on the Venture Theater's main stage.

In 1997, German became director of the Rites of Passage Program at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia.

"At the Village, German moved deeper into community-based work, using theater to support and guide inner-city teens in their exploration of themselves, their communities, and the challenging road to adulthood," said Lily Yeh, artist and former professor at the University of the Arts, who frequently worked with him.

"Under German's firm but loving guidance, the Village teens blossomed into confident young adults," she said. "German fostered the creation of 10 original plays at the Village, built largely from the participants' own stories, dreams and lives."

His education at Fisk was interrupted by a hitch in the Army, with which he was stationed in the Middle East. He returned to Fisk and graduated in 1960.

A fellow student, Richard M. Turner III, said that at Fisk, German was a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

"He was highly creative and developed a number of 'steps' for his fellow fraternity pledges, one to the tune of the Israeli children's song 'Zum Gali Gali,' " Turner said.

In Nashville, German established the Players' Coffee House, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It provided a forum for black youth to express their concerns.

Out of this, he founded the Princely Players with Odessa Settles and other activists in the burgeoning civil-rights movement of the '60s. It performed throughout the Northeast U.S., and resulted in German receiving a position as a teacher at Yale University International High School, one of many teaching jobs in his career.

"For over 40 years, German lit up the darkened stage, inspired our laughter and tears, and made us think about our world in new ways," Lily Yeh said. "Through his art, German gave of himself without reserve, for the profound benefit of all of us whose lives he touched."

He had no immediate survivors.

Services: Celebration of Life service scheduled for Sept. 20. Time and location to be determined.

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