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Lockwood Funeral Home

9402 Lockwood Drive, Houston, TX

OBITUARY

Vernell LILLIE

May 11, 1931May 14, 2020

The Founder and Artistic Director of Kuntu Repertory Theatre, Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie, died on May 11, 2020, her 89th birthday. She was born on May 11, 1931, in Hempstead, Texas, to Lillie Mae Watson and Walter J. Watson. She and her older sister Walta Delle Watson spent their early years in Hempstead. She attended Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she earned her B.A. degree in Speech and Drama. In 1952, she married jazz musician and educator Richard “Dickie Boy” Lillie, Jr. They had been friends since childhood. Two children were born to that union - Charisse R. Lillie and Marsha D.”Hisani” Lillie. She taught Speech and Drama at Worthing High School and Phyliss Wheatley High School in the Houston Independent School District for 19 years. During that time, she produced and directed theatrical productions starring outstanding student actors, whom she mentored with love and ferocity. She also acted in local theatrical productions, most famously playing Mama in RAISIN IN THE SUN. She also was a member of the Black Theatre Movement in Houston in the last sixties.

In 1969, she moved with her late husband Richard L. Lillie, Jr. and daughter Marsha “Hisani” Lillie to pursue doctoral studies in Pittsburgh, PA. She ultimately earned her M.A. degree in English from Carnegie Mellon University in 1971, and her D.A. degree in English from Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Lillie joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh in 1972. She served as an Associate Professor in the Department of Africana Studies until her retirement in 2006.

In 1974, Dr. Lillie founded the Kuntu Repertory Theatre with the intent of examining Black life from a sociopolitical-historical perspective. Lillie used drama to educate while entertaining. Kuntu naturally developed into a supportive community for black writers, actors and artists. Rob Penny and August Wilson were closely associated with Kuntu. Since its establishment, the theatre has sponsored countless activities which highlight the African American community. Lillie has directed many productions including: The Buffalo Soldiers Plus One, Little Willie Armstrong Jones, Whispers Want to Holler, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Good Black Don’t Crack, Mahalia Jackson: Staanding on Holy Ground, Homecoming and Radio Golf. Homecoming was the first play by August Wilson to be produced by a resident company. Kuntu also traveled and performed around Pennsylvania and the country and was seen on the international stage in Edinburgh, Scotland, Toronto, Canada, The French Festival, and the Grandstown Festival in South Africa. Dr. Lillie also wrote and directed over 150 plays and collages in her lifetime and helped to launch the careers of many artists. One such artist was young Chadwick Boseman, who presented his play and taught master classes during Kuntu’s Mentors and Proteges 2002 season. He was one of many artists nurtured by Dr. Lillie.

Dr. Lillie has been the recipient of many prestigious awards including the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award; the Outstanding Award for Women in the Arts by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; and the 2003 Career Achievement in Education Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Black Theatre Festival in 2005 and the Pennsylvania Governor’s Creative Community Award. She also received numerous awards for her creative expression through the arts, her work with seniors and young people, and for her activism in education and the theatre arts.

Dr. Lillie was inducted into the prestigious Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania by Governor Tom Ridge, and she was a trained Psychodrmatist. She pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at Dillard University and was an active member of the sorority throughout her life, including service as the President of the Houston Chapter and serving on National Committees.

Dr. Lillie was preceded in death by her husband, jazz musician and educator Richard L. Lillie, Jr. She is survived by her daughters Charisse R. Lillie and Dr. Marsha Lillie-Blanton, her sons-in-laws, Thomas L. McGill, Jr. and Thomas Blanton, grandchildren Jamehl Ihejeto(Ike), Alison Higgins(Kyle), Thomas McGill, III(Shannon), Leslie Arnette, Ashaki Blanton(Hope), Akilah Blanton-Taylor(Titus) and 16 great-grandchildren. The family requests that donations in honor of Dr. Lillie be made to the Black Theatre Network (Blacktheatrenetwork.org), in care of Renee Charlow, Business Manager, 8306 Bluebird Way, Lorton, VA 22079

Services

  • Visitation

    Friday, May 22, 2020

  • Visitation

    Friday, May 22, 2020

  • Graveside Service

    Friday, May 22, 2020

  • Graveside Service

    Friday, May 22, 2020

Memories

Vernell LILLIE

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Conrad Hence

May 25, 2020

Such wonderful memories of my speech and drama coach at Phillis Wheatley HS (65-68), the phenomenal Dr. Vernell A. Lillie. The sad news of her passing gave me time to reflect on the many opportunities that she gave me personally and the awesome contributions that she made to the entire Phillis Wheatley HS community. I remember the productions that she cast me in at Wheatley, (Medea, Day of Absence/Happy Endings and Our Town to name a few). I remember the countless hours that I spent with her preparing for interscholastic league debate and oratory tournaments around the city ( she had a passion for teaching her craft and she was well known throughout the league for developing champions in one act play, impromptu and extemporaneous speaking and debate). I will never forget our schools first integrated debate competition, the team of Dorothy Singleton and Conrad Hence from Wheatley defeating the highly touted team from Bellaire HS for the Championship Trophy at the University of Houston. Although this was a debate competition, Mrs Lillie trained us to be dramatic presenters and it paid off. Mrs. Lillie also had connections beyond the class room that gave her students opportunity to utilise the skills that she taught. I remember her securing a weekly spot on a local radio station in the late 60’s, (The KYOK Radio Youth Forum) to entertain Houston’s black community of radio listeners while showcasing her students extemporaneous speaking and oratory skills discussing trending topics and interviewing celebrities like James Brown “The Godfather of Soul” and Curtis Graves a noted black Texas Congressman of the times. I could go on and on with my memories of my time with Dr. Vernell Lillie but this is already so lengthy. My sincere condolences to her family especially her accomplished daughters Charrise and Marsha as they grieve this great loss. RIP my dear Dr. Vernell A. Lillie.

Reba Wells Williams

May 24, 2020

Sincere condolences to the family of Dr. Vernell Lillie...

While nothing can make this time any easier,
may it touch your heart to know that others
mourn the loss with you.

Ms. Lillie was an inspiration to many. So proud to
have attended Phillis Wheatley during her years there.

Reba Wells Williams
Class of '67

Michael Sainte-Andress

May 24, 2020

I was inspired to attend Wheatley High School, even though I lived in 3rd Ward, after seeing Mrs. Lillie's staging of, "The Spiral Staircase", by the drama club, The Stagecrafters. She recognized my potential and challenged and urged me to develop my understanding of and and ability to exercise my craft as an actor, orator and writer.

She successfully guided me to many achievements and successes throughout my high school years and was a part of acquiring a full scholarship for me to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (1968), where I became active in theatre and dance and began to create and produce my own works.

Though formally retired now, I remain active in theatre , writing and teaching in a career that spans 50 years. Mrs. Lillie has always been an inspiration and catalyst for my own journey as an artist and I'll be eternally grateful for her contribution to many of my accomplishments.

I remember her daughters, who were a couple of years younger than me, as bright and energetic. Many years later I became reacquainted with both of them through mutual friends in
Phlladelphia (Joseph Meachem) and in Washington, DC (William Lightfoot).

To them and all of their family, I offer my sincere condolences. They are the descendants of a woman who forged a legacy and standard that they should proudly uphold.

May she rest in peace!

Helen Sanders

May 24, 2020

Ms. Lillie, was the name I knew you as. You just swept into our lives with an Energy that we were not totally aware of then...which was such a Blessing to us all! A lesson I recall you teaching us actors, to never lower our values. You recounted how you too could have been 'very popular' had you acquiesced to being a 'stereotype' others wanted you to fulfill because of your bravado. You chose Integrity of the Highest Caliber for your Life. And so did we. You our Warrior 'our Living example of Excellence' who pushed us to excel in ways we didn't understand, but saw so clearly later...because 'you knew'... Dr. Vernell LILLIE!!! We couldn't help but LOVE YOU! Later, I was utterly blessed when you reentered my life again Director in Residence at Houston's Ensemble Theatre with Celeste-Bedford Walker's "Over Forty!" Lessons you taught us in Theatre...we carry on! Looking back on the sets you set up for us at Wheatley High School, "Medea"...so ahead of the Times! As your Daughters drooled over the new British Pop group, The Beatles...which I didn't get then...you just 'loved' their love. You gleamed! Seeing you here in New York City hanging out with Woody King Jr. and other stalwarts of Black Theatre like you... Sitting with you to share eats at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem... You were still 'you'...welcoming your 'Children'...us...with open arms. Now, the Almighty Creator's arms are so open for you. Rest in Peace our African Theatre Warrior Queen. Ms. Lillie...we will Forever....Love you...

Joyce Douglas

May 24, 2020

Sincere condolences to the Lillie Family. I was a student at Phillis Wheatley High School during the time Mrs. Lillie was a faculty member. Her young daughters were often seen in the afternoons at the school, and in Pleasantville, the neighborhood where we both resided. I will always remember Mrs. Lillie as a very articulate speaker, very attractive, with a kind heart, and spirit. She leaves an awesome legacy.

Joyce LaMothe Douglas

Deborah Starghill

May 23, 2020

I remember Dr. Lillie and her two daughters. She was the daughter in law of members of my church, Mr. Richard Lillie, Sr. and Mrs. Reffer Lillie. I remember Dr. Lillie as a warm , kind, talented and intelligent woman. I also remember her daughters, Marsha and Charisse who often visited Payne Chapel A.M.E. Church with their grandparents. May God give her children and other family members peace and grant them wonderful memories of their loved one.

Eloise McFadden

May 23, 2020

My sincerest condolences to the family. I knew Ms Lillie from Phillis Wheatley High School which is where I graduated from in 1968. I was not one of her students but everyone knew about Ms Lillie because her students always stood out. She was one of the best if not the best in her field and her students thought highly of her. She will definitely be missed by so many.

Eloise Jackson- Mcfadden
Phillis Wheatley
Class of 1968

FROM THE FAMILY
FROM THE FAMILY

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