By Norma J. Thomas
At a time when the renaming of schools is being hotly debated throughout the City of Houston, there is one renaming that could not be more fitting, more relevant, and more timely than the renaming of the M.C. Williams Middle School Auditorium to The C. Lee Turner Performing Arts Center, an effort being undertaken by Alumni of M. C. Williams Jr.-Sr. High School.
It was September, 1965, when Mr. Clarance Lee Turner, who would come to be known by many as simply, C. Lee, took a drive along the dirt roads of the Acreage Homes Community, amazed that in the midst of a metropolis like Houston, Texas, sat an agricultural community of proud, self-determined residents. He was soon to begin his first teaching assignment at M. C. Williams Jr. – Sr. High School, and by the year’s end, he would also discover that tucked away in this oasis was a wealth of acting, singing, dancing and public speaking talent. Thus, by the start of the next school year, Turner, also a basketball coach, had laid the foundation for what would become one of the best high school speech, debate and drama programs in America.
During his twelve year tenure at M. C. Williams, C. Lee would accomplish what other High School Drama teachers still only dream of, such as being not just the first African American high school theatre organization invited to perform at the American Theatre Festival in Great Britain, but being the first high school of any kind. His was the first African American theatre organization, educational or professional, to perform on Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theatre stage, performing “To Be Young, Gifted & Black,” which would become a Turner Signature Production. In the arena of Interscholastic competition, namely the National Forensic League and The University Interscholastic League (UIL), it was well known that M. C. Williams was a force to be reckoned with. It was because of outstanding results in competition that an article entitled, “Eloquence in the Ghetto”, a six-page spread, appeared in Sepia Magazine, 1973, one of the nation’s leading Black publications of the time. In 1975, Turner and his students made history by becoming the first Black high school to win the UIL State One Act Play Contest, performing scenes from James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner. M. C. Williams, under the direction of C. Lee Turner, returned in 1976 to the State meet and won 1st Runner-Up with the play, “The Wizard of Oz”. While the 1977 production of “To Be Young, Gifted, & Black” would not mean a three-peat for the phenomenal program, garnering the State Alternate Play position that year, in 1978, the troupe won 1st Runner-Up again, with Marc Connelly’s “Green Pastures”.
It would be the last journey they made, as M.C. Williams Jr.-Sr. High School became M. C. Williams Middle School after the Class of 1978. Whether they were direct participants in the Drama Troupe, called Die Gruppe, or simply fulfilled their Fine Arts credit with a random Drama or Speech class, the lives of many young people were touched by the instruction, guidance, and direction of Mr. C. Lee Turner. Students of Die Gruppe were known to attain the highest school honors, hold class and school leadership positions, receive the greatest number of college scholarships, and go on to be successful actors, lawyers, preachers, teachers, and more.
In fact, when Turner made his defining move to Prairie View A&M University, not only did many M. C. students follow him to Prairie View, so did students who had previously been competitors from other schools. Students flocked to PVAMU to study under the renowned Dr. Turner, as he became lovingly known. From 1968 – 1978, students under Turner’s tutelage and college advisement were awarded scholarships and grants to universities like Carnegie-Melon, Centenary, Lon Morris, San Diego School for the Performing Arts, University of Houston, Shaw University, Sul Ross University, Pratt Institute, PVAMU, Hampton Institute, and others. The success of the M. C. Williams Jr.-Sr. High School students in drama, debate, and speech activities brought local, state, national, and international recognition to Turner’s outstanding work as an educator. He received awards and recognition too numerous to detail, which include being named Teacher of the Year three times on the MCW campus. Upon leaving M. C. Williams, the marks that Turner would make on Educational Theatre, Black Theatre, and American Theatre in general would continue to grow and continue to be recognized.
In 1982, after only two years of being on the Faculty at PVAMU, he led the Charles Gilpin Players to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the first Historically Black College to have that honor. For the next two decades, he was repeatedly named Teacher of the Year – College/University Division, Advisor of the Year, and was recognized as PVAMU Alumni of the Year for single-handedly recruiting 20 -30 students to PVAMU, for consecutive years. PVAMU graduates enjoyed automatic admission to several Graduate Programs of study, while others went on to study at some of the best Grad Schools across the country. In 2008, recognition by the Texas Spring Cypress Chapter of the Links, Inc. led to June 6, 2008 being proclaimed C. Lee Turner Day by Mayor Bill White. In 2009, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) honored him at the State Competition for his work as a UIL Theatre Director and Adjudicator, having become the first African American UIL Adjudicator in 1981. Turner is the only African American to be honored by UIL in the 82-year history of the organization. Later that same year, the very prestigious National Black Theatre Festival honored him with the Living Legend Award. In true “living legend” fashion, it is not only Turner’s work that is garnering him the recognition he is to receive during this C. Lee Turner Tribute Weekend, October 6-8; it’s the legacy he began in 1965 that continues to grow exponentially.
There is truth to the adage, “You can tell a tree by the fruit it bears.” A little known fact, researched by The Gilpin Yahoo Group in 2009, documented by this writing, is that across the Southwest Region of the country, the presence of African American and Latino High School Theatre Teachers is a direct result of the life-long work of C. Lee Turner. Across the City of Houston alone, one school after another, boasts a C. Lee Turner protégé on its faculty. In several cases, the Theatre Teachers and Technical Directors are former C. Lee Turner students – MCW and PVAMU grads. In 2009, the Gilpin Yahoo Group reported: In the Educational arena, students taught by Turner in High School and College make up the majority of minority teachers (Afro and Mexican Americans) hired to teach Theatre Arts (Drama) in the public schools in the State of Texas. The amazing statistics reveal that more than thirty (30) teachers of Theatre Arts (Drama) in Texas public schools, who have taught and/or still teaching since 1982, are the products of Turner’s tutelage. Two (2) are teaching at the College levels, one in California (USC) and one in Texas (Alvin Community College). In 2014, it was observed by the Black Theatre Educators’ Caucus, founded by C. Lee Turner in 2010, at the Texas Educational Theatre Festival, that the above numbers had more than doubled, that the reach had expanded down to the Valley of Southwest Texas, into colleges and universities around the country. The room was filled with nothing but former Turner students, MC and PV grads, their students, and their students’ students. It was a sight to behold. Turner’s legacy includes not only Theatre Educators, but professional artists from Community and Regional Theatres to Broadway.
On October 6, at 7pm, the Renaming Ceremony of M. C. Williams Middle School Auditorium to The C. Lee Turner Performing Arts Center will be a historical event, a celebration of a life of service, a commitment to education and a love of the Arts. Turner’s signature production, “To Be Young, Gifted & Black,” will be performed by the award winning Panther Players of G. W. Carver H.S., under the direction of Miss Roshunda Jones and Mr. Jabari Collins, both PVAMU graduates. The following night, Friday, October 7, at 7pm, Mr. C. Lee Turner and Dr. Ted Shine will each receive the Living Legend Award from the Charles Gilpin Players; this event will be held at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Event Center. Additional information can be found on the Charles Gilpin Players – Reunion Facebook page.