Words by Nneka Samuel
“‘What’ is a wonderful word,” exclaimed the ever-curious, veritable Renaissance man Geoffrey Holder in the 2009 documentary film, Carmen and Geoffrey. More than a triple threat, the multi-faceted artist and Trinidadian native passed away on October 5th in New York City due to complications from pneumonia. He was 84.
A true pioneer in the world of art, Holder’s career spanned over five decades. Inhabiting a realm and achieving a celebrity that no other Caribbean artist did at the time, Holder drew on the traditions of home to craft his work. And he felt at ease whether dancing, acting, painting or designing costumes. Holder proudly overcame the stammering that plagued him as a child and used his melodic articulation and bass-tinged laugh to become one of the most recognizable voices in show business.
Before taking Broadway by storm, Holder attended Queen’s Royal College. He then took the folk dance troupe his brother, Boscoe, started in Trinidad to New York in the early 1950’s. But it was his star-turning performance as Baron Samedi in the 1954 Broadway musical House of Flowers that put Holder on the map. This fateful role led him to fellow dancer Carmen de Lavallade. Holder proposed to her only four days after they met. The couple would marry a year later.
Holder would go on to become a principle dancer for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet from 1954 to 1958. A year later, he published “Black Gods, Green Islands,” a book about Caribbean folklore. During this time, he also reprised his Baron Samedi role and played the villain to Roger Moore’s Bond in Live and Let Die. In 1975, Holder won two Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Musical and Costume Design for the all-Black Broadway hit, The Wiz. He would be nominated for a Tony three years later for Best Costume Design for the musical Timbuktu!, which he also directed and choreographed. He also famously choreographed works for the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Holder brought something unique and honest to every role. He played countless iconic characters on stage, in film and television, from Punjab in the 1982 film version of Annie to Lucky in the short lived play, Waiting For Godot. Generation Xers know him as Nelson, the randy director to Eddie Murphy’s womanizing ad executive in the 1992 film Boomerang. Millions more knew him as the 7Up spokesman who donned a white, crisp suit in commercials promoting the “un-cola.”
Holder’s artwork was promoted frequently in his homeland. He had exhibits in 2008 at the Art Society of Trinidad & Tobago and 2009 at 101 Gallery’s show at Softbox Studios. His most recent exhibit, “Memoir In Movement,” was on display for seven months from 2013 to 2014 at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
In a 2010 interview with Dance magazine, Holder described the impetus behind his artistic life as being shaped by his memory of being a West Indian child who had yet to see the world. “I create for the innocent little boy in the balcony who has come to the theater for the first time,” said Holder. “He wants to see magic, so I give him magic.”
Upon news of his passing, Trinidadian Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar released a statement: “Geoffrey Holder was one of a kind, who blazed the trail for more than 60 years. The death leaves a huge void on the national and international stage. He was a person of whom Trinidad and Tobago must be proud.”
On Friday, October 10 at 7:45 pm, Broadway will dim its lights to honor the late icon. Holder is survived by his wife, Carmen, and son, Leo.