Gloria Foster was born on November 15, 1933, in Chicago, Illinois. As a young child she was put into custody of her mother’s grandparents. Gloria Foster never knew who her father was and she moved to Janesville, Wisconsin after her mother was hospitalized for a mental illness. Her grandmother, Eleanor Sudds, and her grandfather, Clyde Sudds, raised Gloria Foster on a farm. As Gloria continued her education she returned to her hometown of Chicago and attended the University of Illinois, where she participated in plays, but did not focus on it. She took many different classes, including forensics, which she enjoyed a lot. Gloria Foster was not sure what occupation to pursue, until her godmother introduced her to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. After she auditioned and was accepted, she knew that this was going to be her passion in life, the theater. She was one of the few African Americans at the Goodman School of Drama, but focused on her study of acting. During her studying at the Goodman School she also, “learned professional acting skills in the Court Theater at the University of Chicago”. One of her most influential instructors was Bella Itkin, who cast Gloria in many classical roles. Her next step in life was to move to New York to pursue a career on Broadway.
Gloria Foster began her career on Broadway as she moved to New York in 1963. Her first role was Ruth in the show of A Raisin in the Sun. She started an acting career as her agent, Ernestine McClendon, sent her on an audition for In White America. The play was about the history of blacks in the United States and the oppression they had to face. Gloria Foster, “play[s] a 13-year-old Arkansas girl who tries to enter her Little Rock school”. This was her first distinction and had to play 27 different characters. This led to her winning an Obie Award or Off-Broadway Theater Award, which is an, “annual award bested by The Village Voice newspaper to theater artists and groups in New York City”. She also received a two-page article in Life Magazine, explaining about the wonderful performance and critics said she was up and coming and people should look out for the next pieces she performs in. She performed many other plays in New York and on Broadway and the public started to notice her, as she became a bigger star. Not only did the public start to notice her, but also critics began analyzing her performances. They wrote that she performed her roles as a, “majestic, full-voiced, statuesque and stunning actress”. The passion she had for acting was reflected in her performances and an unusual thing happened for her, “an African-American actress around whom producers and directors built production”. Instead of Gloria Foster having to audition for roles, people started to make parts for her to be in. It was her spirit, excitement, and stamina for acting that gave her success in such a hard business. She was a breakthrough artist who, “played roles previously inaccessible to Blacks”.
She was known for her work with Joe Papp, appearing in his productions of Long Day’s Journey into Night, Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, Brecht’s Mother Courage (adapted by Ntozake Shange), and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Gloria Foster, instead of searching for fame by trying to be in many different productions, searched for roles in which she would be able to perform at the best of her ability. She once said, “Young people today, I think, are thinking in terms of stepping stones.…I don’t know that I ever thought that way. It sounds ridiculous, but I was always thinking in terms of a more difficult role”. She won fame by performing her roles magnificently, not by performing the maximum number of roles that she could. She read many scripts, but only chose the ones that spoke truly to her. By the end of her acting career, she was rewarded with three Obie awards, for In White America (1963) and A Raisin In the Sun, and was in the Broadway production of Having Our Say (1995). In the early 1970s, Foster was admitted to a special graduate program in education at UMass.
Gloria Foster was married to the actor Clarence Williams III in 1967. They met on the television show The Mod Squad that ran from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. The show was a police drama that featured three young hip crime fighters. In the show Clarence Williams played the black cop, Linc Hayes. Foster made two guest appearances on the show. The two also were in a movie, The Cool World, in 1964 together. In 1984 they filed for a divorce, but remained friends. Williams was the one to announce her death in 2001. While Foster did not have many close relatives, it is known that she stayed in contact with her sorority sister, Cicely Tyson. Tyson stated that although they did not see each other often, their telephone conversations would often last for hours. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Gloria Foster died on September 29, 2001, at age 67. The cause of her death was diabetes. Though she was no longer married, her ex-husband, Clarence Williams III, was the one to announce her death. A memorial was held at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn on October 15, 2001. Many of her close friends and actors and actresses who had performed with her came to attend the funeral. Judith Rutherford James, a well-known producer and good friend who worked with Foster on In White America and Having Our Say played a huge part in the memorial service and helped to oversee that it ran smoothly. Many of the speeches given at the service showed and spoke about how Gloria Foster not only played her part, but also embodied the character, both emotionally and physically. Martin Duberman, the author of In White America, told the audience that, “she embodied it. At the end of the scene each night, there were tears streaming down her face, her body was trembling, but her dignity was intact … Foster had to be covered with blankets in order to calm her shaking”. She is interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
- November, 15, 1933
- Chicago, Illinois
- September, 29, 2001
- New York, New York
Cause of Death
- Kensico Cemetery
- Valhalla, New York