Obituaries

Barbara Meek, 81; Trinity Rep and TV actress

Barbara Meek portrayed the Ghost of Christmas Past in a Trinity Repertory Company production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Trinity Repertory Company
Barbara Meek portrayed the Ghost of Christmas Past in a Trinity Repertory Company production of “A Christmas Carol.”

When Hollywood called with an offer to play Archie Bunker’s level-headed housekeeper on a spinoff of “All in the Family,” stage actress Barbara Meek and her young daughter were overcome with joy in their Providence apartment.

“We were literally jumping up and down,” recalled Ms. Meek’s only child, Leslie Matuko Molson, who was 12 when her mother played Ellen Canby in “Archie Bunker’s Place.”

Though Ms. Meek enjoyed her run on the sitcom, which ended in 1983 after four seasons, she always knew she would return to the theater, her daughter recalled.

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“She loved the theater too much,” Leslie said. “She wanted to work, that was the bottom line. She loved the theater.”

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Ms. Meek, a Detroit native who appeared in more than 100 Trinity Repertory Company productions after joining the Rhode Island theater group in 1968, was playing the philosopher Cicero in “Julius Caesar” days before she died Oct. 3 of a heart attack at her home in Providence. She was 81.

Whether she was playing tempestuous opera star Maria Callas in “Master Class” or the Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol,” she was regarded by company members as a consummate professional and an artist whose work ethic and ability to transcend age, race, and gender were inspiring.

While some actors in a play might pass the time until their next scene by playing cards or reading magazines, Ms. Meek always listened to the show, no matter how many times she had performed in it.

“She’d say, ‘I want to feel how the audience is feeling the play. I want to be in the world of the play,’ ” said her friend Joe Wilson Jr., a company member for 10 years.

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He recalled the emotional toll they both experienced while performing “A Raisin in the Sun.” Wilson played Walter Lee Younger, a character who was tangling over his father’s life insurance check while living in poverty on Chicago’s South Side. Ms. Meek portrayed his mother, Lena.

Ms. Meek, Wilson said, kept poring over the script long after the lines were embedded in her mind.

“She continued to be a student of the play,” he said. “She was always hungry, always trying to find that extra bit of something for the character. She never took anything for granted and treated every show as if it would be her last. The work was so important to her.”

Curt Columbus, Trinity’s artistic director, called Ms. Meek the troupe’s matriarch. “Quite simply, she was our family, and we are shocked by her sudden passing,” he said in a statement on the company’s website. “Barbara had a long and brilliant career and was a force to be reckoned with — a fiercely intelligent, honest, and radiant actor and human being. She will be missed beyond words, but her legacy will live on at Trinity Rep.”

Ms. Meek was the granddaughter of the Rev. Horatius “H.H.” Coleman, who was pastor of the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church in Detroit and a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father.

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Her mother, the former Juanita Coleman, was a classical pianist who later became a beautician and real estate owner in Detroit. Her father, Harold Meek, was a bus driver. They divorced when Ms. Meek was a child.

During her Detroit childhood, she set aside any thoughts that she was a minority, Ms. Meek told the Globe in 1997. “There is only one race, and that’s the human race,” she said. “The only aliens around come from another planet — at least the only aliens I know.”

Juanita Meek encouraged her daughter’s acting talent. Later, while Ms. Meek worked, Juanita helped raise her granddaughter, Leslie, who is now a radio producer and jazz singer in New Orleans.

After graduating from Detroit’s Northwestern High School, where she appeared in student musicals, Ms. Meek studied at Wayne State University and was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She was in the graduate theater program when she met Martin Molson. They later married.

In interviews, Ms. Meek recalled how she was visibly pregnant with her daughter when she and her husband came to Providence in 1968 to audition for Trinity’s maverick director Adrian Hall, who led the theater until 1989. Hall hired both actors, casting Ms. Meek and her husband in an adaptation of poet Robert Penn Warren’s “Brother to Dragons.”

The couple later separated. Molson died in 1980.

Ms. Meek’s career at Trinity Repertory included leading roles in plays such as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August Wilson’s tale of the exploitation of 1920s black recording artists. She also appeared in “Boesman and Lena,” set in the South African apartheid era, and was Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”

Her television roles included Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Life Among the Lowly”; playing a foster mother on “Big Brother Jake”; and the sitcom “Melba.”

A service has been held for Ms. Meek, whose daughter is her only immediate survivor. Burial was in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

In a Twitter post, Emmy Award-winner and former Trinity Rep member Viola Davis called Ms. Meek “a brilliant actress, an inspiring role model and one of my first examples of excellence.”

In interviews, Ms. Meek always declined to reveal her age, noting that actress Anne Meara, who also appeared on “Archie Bunker’s Place,” advised her long ago never to tell. “I can play 30 to 103,” Ms. Meek once told The Providence Journal.

Her friends did not know her age until they were gathered at a restaurant for her birthday one year. John Cicilline, who was then mayor of Providence, arrived and read a proclamation honoring Ms. Meek’s 75th birthday.

“The room let out a collective gasp,” Wilson recalled. “Barbara was mortified. We all laughed and laughed and then we all pretended the mayor’s proclamation never happened.”

During Ms. Meek’s career, fine restaurants around Providence began stocking her favorite liquor, the caraway seed-flavored Scandinavian spirit Aalborg Akvavit. “They learned to stock it, or she wouldn’t go,” her daughter said with a laugh.

Trinity’s associate artistic director, Tyler Dobrowsky, said Ms. Meek was regarded with reverence for her trailblazing career and her acting abilities. During a rehearsal, he said, “I would ask her to do something, and even if it’s a bad idea, she could make it look good.”

She could appear regal and almost stoic at times, he added, but then let loose a ribald joke that sent everyone into fits of laughter.

The company had a scheduled performance on the evening of the day she died. Wilson, who had the role of Marc Anthony, and other actors wondered for a moment whether the show could go on under the weight of their collective grief. Their answer was swift. “Hell, yeah,” Wilson said. “Barbara would have insisted on it.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.