Throughout her career, African-American actress Diana Sands successfully challenged racial barriers in the theater world by pursuing and winning parts that were traditionally played by white actresses. At a time when black actors were offered minor or marginal roles Sands battled for more interracial casting. She also appeared in noteworthy plays about the lives of African Americans.
A native New Yorker who graduated from that city’s celebrated High School of the Performing Arts, Sands made her professional debut off-Broadway playing Juliet in An Evening with Will Shakespeare (1953) and a year later she appeared in a revival of Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. She had a few minor successes before making her Broadway debut in Lorraine Hansberry’s ground breaking play about an African-American family living in Chicago’s South Side, A Raisin in the Sun. The play was roundly praised as a work that “has vigor and veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of any one who sees it.”1 Members of the cast, which included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil, were celebrated for their compelling portrayal of Hansberry’s vivid characters. Sands was awarded the Outer Critics Circle Award and a Variety Critics Poll Award for her performance. She revisited the part in the 1961 film version of the play.
Shortly after the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Sands appeared with Alan Alda in a Broadway romantic comedy, The Owl and the Pussycat by Bill Manhoff. The two-person play was written for white actors, and race wasn’t an element of the story—in fact it was never even mentioned. Such interracial casting was rare and thus was thought by many to be a major step toward dismantling the status quo regarding race in the theater community. Sands continued in this vein when, in the late 1960s as a member of the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center, she became the first African-American woman to play Joan of Arc in a professional production when she appeared in Shaw’s Saint Joan.
In addition to performing with touring and regional productions, Sands appeared in films and on television. She was to play Claudine in the 1974 film of the same name, (a role for which Diahann Caroll would eventually receive an Oscar nomination) but Sands, a long-time chain smoker, was diagnosed with cancer and deemed too ill to take the role. She died in September of that year.