Vernell A. Lillie, a former associate professor of Africana Studies and founder of Pitt’s Kuntu Repertory Theatre, died on May 11, her 89th birthday. She retired from Pitt in 2006.
Born in 1931 in Hempstead, Texas, Lillie arrived in Pittsburgh in 1969 to pursue a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1973, she began teaching in what was then Pitt’s Department of Black Community, Education, and Research and, along with prolific poet and playwright Rob Penny, founded Kuntu the following year.
The new theater company exposed Pittsburgh audiences to cutting edge ideas, art, culture and the Black community’s social and political concerns. For nearly four decades, it featured works by Penny, Pulitzer Prize-winning Pittsburgh native August Wilson and other Black playwrights.
Kuntu was the first company to mount the August Wilson play “Homecoming” in 1976, which Lillie directed. Actors such as Emmy-winner Esther Rolle, Sala Udin and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company founder Mark Southers performed on the Kuntu stage, located at Pitt’s Stephen Foster Memorial, and later at Alumni Hall. Chadwick Boseman of “Black Panther” fame also had a play staged by Kuntu and acted in it.
Lillie’s career at Pitt garnered her many awards, including the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1986, a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania in 1998 and the Pennsylvania Creative Community Award in 2006. A scholarship in Lillie’s name was established at Dillard University in New Orleans, her alma mater. She kept Kuntu alive even after her retirement. The company’s final performances were at the Homewood Library in 2013.
For a full reflection on her life, see Pittwire.