Yesterday, August 22, was actress Diana Sands’ birthday. She would’ve been 78. Because of the efforts of some of our most reliable online resources for black culture and history appreciation, like Sweet Blackberry and Vintage Black Glamour, I’ve been seeing a lot of Sands in my social media timelines over the past few days. I expect to see more in the weeks to come; the anniversary of her death is September 2, less than two weeks after her birth date.
If you’re familiar with Sands’ work at all, it’s probably owing to her memorable portrayal of Beneatha, the Younger family’s willful, progressive aspiring doctor, in the 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. But by then, she had already established herself as a living walking testament to the power of risk-taking. Sands grew up in the Bronx with working class parents, her father a carpenter, her mother hatmaker. After high school graduation, she toured with a carnival before returning to New York and joining Greenwich Mews, a multicultural theatre repertory. She worked night jobs to survive, before scoring her first theatre roles (one of the earliest was the stage production of A Raisin in the Sun). By 1964, her star was rapidly rising. She won an Obie for the play, Living Premise, and a Tony nomination for her role in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie.
This was also the year that Sands became a pioneer in colorblind casting as one of the first ever actresses to earn a role intended for a white actress, without any line rewriting to explain or accommodate her race. She played opposite Alan Alda as his love interest as a would-be actress to his would-be writer. When the film was adapted for screen, Barbra Streisand was cast in her role, but by that time, she’d already garnered a great deal of positive press and audience notice. Television came a-courtin’ and she eventually earned two Emmy nominations. Sands acted through the sixties in various theatre and TV roles. In 1970, she scored her first costarring film role in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord. But the early ’70s would mark the end of a steady and promising rise toward superstardom.
Sands fell ill with leiomyosarcoma, a rare, malignant cancer of the soft muscles, at a time when her life seem at its most vibrant. She was engaged to director Kurt Baker at the time and, because of her illness, she’d begun rehearsals for what would’ve been sure to be her breakout film performance, the titular role in Claudine. The 1974 film would go on to be provide a starmaking turn for Diahann Carroll. Carroll, a fellow Bronx native, was a good friend of Sands–so good that the latter insisted the former take the role of Claudine when she proved too ill to continue. Sands died before the film’s release.
It’s hard to watch Claudine without imagining what Diana Sands would’ve done with the role. It’s equally hard to imagine anyone else but Diahann Carroll starring. That’s a testament to Sands’ instincts. At the time, she was the better-known actress; to use her influence to insure that Carroll was cast was one of her final career risks. And like many of her early ones, the pay off was huge.
Today, when we see black actresses included in multicultural casts where their race doesn’t factor into the character’s ability, intellect, or sex appeal, we can consider each of those performances as an homage to Diana Sands, one of the first black women mainstream audiences embraced as an embodiment of grit, smarts, and sexiness without hypersexualization or stereotypes. To this day, cinema scholars wistfully speculate about what turns her career would’ve taken, if only she’d lived long enough to reach her full potential.