October 30, 2020
Dr. Coleman A. Jennings, a lifelong theatre practitioner, scholar and former chair of the department, passed away on October 28, 2020. Jennings joined the faculty in 1963 and spent over 50 years as a beloved faculty member of the Theatre and Dance community.
Jennings began his love of the art of storytelling during his childhood. In his youth, he spent hours making films for the neighborhood children in his hometown of Taylor, Texas. Play upon play – from the road shows presented along Austin’s Congress Avenue to The University of Texas at Austin’s touring production of Moor Born presented at his high school – Jennings was captivated by theatre. This passion culminated into a career as a seminal professor in the evolving fields of children’s theatre and theatre for youth and communities.
Following his study at Temple Junior College and service in the Army Signal Corps, Jennings first arrived at UT as an undergraduate student in the Department of Drama in 1955. Degree in hand, he worked in the theatre as an off-Broadway stage manager in New York. He returned to UT to pursue a master’s degree in directing and later completed his doctorate in education at New York University.
Jennings joined the faculty of UT’s Department of Drama (now Department of Theatre and Dance) in 1963. Early on in his career, he helped establish theatre education as a requirement for all Texas elementary school students, ensuring that all children be exposed to the power of the arts. During his tenure at UT he served as department chair for 12 years (1980-1992), led the M.F.A. (Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities) and B.F.A. (Theatre Studies/Education) programs to national prominence, and directed over 20 productions and tours.
As department chair, Jennings aggressively recruited a diverse faculty including Amarante Lucero, Stephen Gerald, Omi Jones, Judy Dearing, Ted Shine and Whitney LeBlanc. And through his leadership, the department established several new student scholarships as well as the Theatre for Youth Chair held by Professor Suzan Zeder and later by Professor Steven Dietz. With these funds, the Department of Theatre and Dance was able to attract and retain talented artists and educators. Jennings received a Texas Educational Theatre Association Founder’s Award, was an inductee into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre of the Kennedy Center and the College of Fellows of the Southwest Theatre Association and in 1997 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education. In 2011, he was awarded an Orlin Corey Medallion of the Children's Theatre Foundation of America. This honor recognized Jennings’ significant achievements in theatre that have contributed to the cultural enrichment of children and youth in the United States and Canada.
Jennings published Six Plays for Children by Aurand Harris: Biography and Play Analyses in 1977, followed by eight edited anthologies of plays for young audiences; these seminal publications continue to be used around the world. With his wife Lola H. Jennings, he coauthored Braille: The Early life of Louis Braille and a book on drama in the elementary classroom. He also published plays such as The Honorable Urashima Taro and contributed numerous other publications and critical letters to the field.
Jennings retired from The University of Texas at Austin in 2017 and was celebrated by the department, college, and the field in April 2018 with a two-day symposia on theatre with and for youth. His archive, the Coleman A. Jennings Papers, is housed at the Briscoe Center for American History. His legacy will resonate for many years to come.
His family has requested that gifts in his memory be sent to the Coleman A. Jennings Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Creative Drama/Theatre for Young Audiences in the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin. Please find information about making a gift here.