BERKELEY -- Charlie Louis Russell Jr., renowned for his play about the dynamics of an African-American family, died June 28. He was 81.
The man affectionately known by his daughter as a "writer's writer" is best remembered for his play "Five on the Black Hand Side," which appeared off-Broadway and was made into a movie in 1973. Russell won an NAACP Image Award for writing the screenplay.
He also was the older brother of former NBA great Bill Russell.
Wynn Handman, co-founder of the American Place Theater, which produced Charlie Russell's play, worked closely with the playwright for a year. "Five on the Black Hand Side" is the only play that came out of the theater that was made into a movie.
"He had a wonderful sense of humor, and everything he did had rhythm to it," Handman said. "His comedy 'Five on the Black Hand Side' was hugely successful and it was quite innovative."
Handman said that at that time, there were no plays like Russell's about black family life that were comic. He said Russell was innovative, very "talented, funny and full of life."
Charlie Louis Russell Jr. was born March 10, 1932, in West Monroe, La. His parents, Charlie and Katie, were hardworking, industrious and ran a tight ship. He and his brother, Bill, spent days shooting BB guns, hunting birds and going to the movies.
In the 1940s, in search of a better life, the family moved to Oakland. Charlie attended Cole Elementary, Hoover Junior High and Oakland Tech High.
Charlie attended Santa Rosa Junior College and later was briefly married to Donna Diston. Their son, Michael, was born in 1950. Russell served in the Army from 1953 to 1955 and was stationed in Korea. Upon his return, he attended the University of San Francisco, where he majored in English. He also was on the school's 1957 basketball team that reached the NCAA Final Four.
"He had a great personality, and he was just full of jokes," said Robert H. Johnson, who has known Russell for more than 50 years. The two would frequently play basketball together when they were younger. "He was my best friend."
After college, Russell moved to New York, married Tanya Johnson and they had a daughter, Katheryn, in 1961. Later, he joined the Harlem Writers' Guild and published several well-received pieces.
Russell returned to the Bay Area in 1978 and taught drama at Contra Costa College. In the mid-1980s, he moved to San Diego, where he worked as a social worker. He later moved back to the East Bay to manage the care of his father. He then worked for Alameda County Child Protective Services.
When he would write, Russell would play jazz music, his favorite, sequester himself in his "writing space" and keep at it for hours, his daughter recalls. Most of what he wrote focused on the lives of everyday working class African-Americans.
"He believed the real heart of the stories about the black community were in the lives of everyday working folks," said Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor. "Not just stories of oppression and the downtrodden, but stories about how people kept moving forward and made a difference."
Russell was sick with gastric cancer for six months before his death. At the time of his death, he was working on a novel based on Toussaint L'Ouverture's life and the Haitian slave rebellion.
"Even though he was sick and died just a few weeks later, he was able to get back to his house in early June," Russell-Brown said. "What he was most interested in was seeing his words, his computer, he wanted to see his writing and hear his music."
Russell is survived by his daughter, Katheryn Russell-Brown (Kevin Brown); son, Joshua Russell; grandchildren, Louis and Sasha Brown; brother, Bill; special friend, Sandra Johnson and ex wife Tanya Russell. He was preceded in death by his son Michael.
A tribute for Charlie Louis Russell Jr. will be held 2-4 p.m. Aug. 3 at the African American Museum and Library, 659 14th St., Oakland. For more information on the services, email CharlieRussellTribute@yahoo.com