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University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 27, 2004

Mona Z. Smith Reads From New Biography On Oct. 12 'Live From Prairie Lights'

Playwright Mona Z. Smith will read from her new biography, "Becoming Something:  The Story of Canada Lee," at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 12 on the "Live from Prairie Lights" series on University of Iowa radio station WSUI, AM 910.

The reading, hosted by Julie Englander, will be a free event at the Prairie Lights bookstore at 15 S. Dubuque St. in downtown Iowa City. Listen on the Internet at

This book, based on a decade of research, is the first biography of Canada Lee, an African-American stage and movie actor during the 1930s and '40s who died shortly after being blacklisted during the McCarthy Era as a result of his civil-rights activism. Despite his previous prominence, after the blacklisting and his premature death he was virtually written out of American cultural consciousness.

Lee grew up in Harlem and was a jockey, national champion boxer and bandleader before he turned to acting. He starred in Orson Welles' Broadway production of "Native Son," and his film credits included "Lifeboat," "Body and Soul" and "Cry, the Beloved Country."

Clyde Taylor wrote in the Washington Post, "'Becoming Something,' Mona Z. Smith's biography of Lee, is a mission accomplished. Her goal is bringing back Lee's fabulous personal journey from obscurity. Armed with extensive research and huge files hoarded by his widow, Smith has put together a richly detailed and mostly persuasive narrative.

"The revelations of Smith's narrative are many. Who remembers the brightness with which Lee's reputation shone in the world of entertainment during the 1940s; his New York playboy period; the nightclub he kept running for many years; his occasional stints as a swing band leader; his friendships with Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Ed Sullivan and Welles; his many admiring girlfriends? But the book also shows us an unfamiliar Lee, whose social consciousness is always developing and whose activism is always vigorous.

"'Becoming Something' does an important thing. It makes possible much more discussion and reflection on a life that still has lessons to teach us."

And Carl Rolly of the New York Sun wrote, "This is one of the most poignantly written biographies I have ever read. Some biographies have perfect pitch. This is one of them."

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,