by Andy Piascik
Louis Peterson was born on June 17, 1922, in Hartford. He grew up in the city’s South End and attended public schools, graduating from Bulkeley High School in 1940. A piano prodigy, he promptly enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta to study music.
A Yale Theater Student
While at Morehouse, Peterson caught the theater bug. His first interest was acting and he appeared in a number of school productions. After graduating in 1944, he returned to Connecticut and enrolled in Yale University’s School of Drama. After one year in New Haven, he moved to Manhattan to continue his studies at New York University.
Peterson studied with the noted acting teacher, Sanford Meisner, at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He also studied writing with Clifford Odets, a playwright who rose to fame in the 1930s. Peterson took his first serious stab at writing by adapting Carson McCuller’s novel The Member of the Wedding. The result was Take a Giant Step, his best-known play, which he finished in early 1953.
Take A Giant StepThough the setting of Take a Giant Step is described simply as “a New England town,” in interviews Peterson talked about the play as autobiographical and the location as drawn from the neighborhood and house in which he grew up. Hartford played host to the play’s first staging for three nights in March 1953 at the New Parsons Theatre, in what was described as a pre-Broadway tryout. None other than theatrical legend Helen Hayes took an active role in getting Take a Giant Step staged. She likened Peterson’s play to Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town.
When the play opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater in 1953, the lead was played by 17-year-old Louis Gossett, Jr, a senior at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Take a Giant Step received stellar notices that highlighted the deft way Peterson used humor to render an otherwise serious story. Loften Mitchell, an African American playwright contemporary of Peterson’s, noted that Take a Giant Step was particularly popular among blacks and credited black theater-goers with making the play a success. The New York Times also selected it as one of the ten best plays of the season.
Take a Giant Step was successfully revived Off-Broadway in 1956 with Godfrey Cambridge among those in the cast, and United Artists made a film version in 1959 featuring Ruby Dee and 18-year-old Johnny Nash, who later became famous as a singer of the smash 1970s hit “I Can See Clearly Now.”
Peterson drew on his Hartford upbringing in plays and television scripts he wrote throughout the rest of his career. In none was his Hartford experience so central as in Take a Giant Step, and, coincidentally or not, nothing else he wrote was as successful or well-received.
Peterson went on to teach theater for many years at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. In an obituary at the time of his death in 1998, The New York Times acknowledged him as a “playwright who opened doors” for other black dramatists and labelled Take a Giant Step “a groundbreaking Broadway play.”
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for numerous publications and websites over the last four decades and is the author of several books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.