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Carol Sutton, New Orleans Star Known For Role In 'Steel Magnolias,' Dies At 76

The actor Carol Sutton, who appeared in well more than 100 movies, plays and television shows, died Thursday in New Orleans of complications from the coronavirus. She was 76 years old.

In 1974, Sutton made her television debut in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," then went on to feature films, starring theatrical roles and more television work. Though she refused to relocate from her hometown, she worked steadily, winning roles in movies, including "The Big Easy," "The Pelican Brief," Monster's Ball," "Ray," "Steel Magnolias," "The Help," and "Poms." Sutton was diagnosed with the virus and hospitalized in November.

Sutton honed her acting abilities beginning in 1968, when she joined one of the rare African-American theatrical troupes in the Deep South. The Dashiki Project Theatre, founded by students at Dillard University and other historically black colleges and universities in Louisiana, was based in New Orleans and mounted plays that reflected the complexities of African-American life. That work came easily to Sutton, in part, because her mother, Marguerite Bush, was a community activist in the city.

Often, Sutton told stories about a night in 1957, when her mom took the family car from their Central City neighborhood to pick up the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he arrived in the city. Carol said she and her sleeping siblings rode in the back seat. King apparently had come for meetings that helped establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that became a major agent for progress on civil rights.

The year Sutton committed to acting, she also started what would be a more than 40-year career at Total Community Action, an organization that helps struggling families and children with special needs. She retired from social and educational work in 2011.

Sutton's particular talent for lending humanity and dignity to ordinary characters translated from the stage, to television, to film with remarkable ease. What's more, her acting style was deceptively natural. In one Dashiki production, the woman she played spurned a male character's advances so convincingly that an audience member reportedly shouted, "You stupid b****!"

And while it's unclear whether Sutton considered herself a method actor, she could stay in character long after other cast members had stopped performing.

Adella Gautier, an actor and longtime friend, said that in at least one instance, Sutton's life seemed to mirror that of her character. In 1974, Sutton was hired to play the role of Vivian, the pregnant daughter-in- law of Cicely Tyson's Jane Pittman in the award-winning television adaptation of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." Gautier who also acted in the film, but did not make the final release, said Sutton was likely pregnant at the audition, but the situation became obvious when she arrived on set.

"Carol was nine months pregnant." Gautier said, while laughing. "She was (riding) in a canoe. And there she was, with her big belly."

In recent years, Sutton's television work included roles in "Tremé," "True Detective," "Queen Sugar," and "Lovecraft Country."

Donald Matthews, who grew up a block away from Sutton in Central City and later acted with her and built sets for Dashiki productions, said she was as accessible to her fans as she was to her friends. Over a career spanning 60 years in show business, she never moved from the house where she grew up on Josephine Street and raised a son and daughter there. Her children and siblings survive her.

"Carol was every day people," Matthews said. "People would stop her and say how much they liked her in a show and she'd say, "Yeah, girl, I'm some glad." She regularly rode the city buses and carried her change purse in her bra.

Gautier remembers Sutton's generosity.

"Carol Sutton would reach into her bosom and ... hand you a $50 bill, and say, 'Hey, go get some beer," Gautier said. "She was a beer drinker. And if the tab came at dinner, she'd say, 'Don't worry, I got it.'"

"If there was a filming project in New Orleans, you knew it would damn well have a part for Carol Sutton," said Batou Chandler, an assistant director, who worked with her on several films. "Because once you work with Carol, you'll want to work with her again."

And yet, a lengthy filmography tells only part of Sutton's story. Aside from the television and film roles, she appeared in any number of local theatrical productions, including "Sty of the Blind Pig," "Member of the Wedding," "The Women," "Our Town" and "A Raisin in the Sun" and she toured internationally with the musical, "One Mo' Time."

New Orleans playwright Dalt Wonk remembers her talents overshadowing a play he wrote about a Louisiana plantation household called "A Bitter Glory.

"It was supposed to be an "Upstairs Downstairs" kind of story with the white plantation owners upstairs and the slaves downstairs," Wonk said. "But Carol and the other Black actors turned out to be so much more interesting as the slaves, so I rewrote the play to make it about their stories."

Shortly before Sutton took sick in November, she'd participated in an as-yet-unreleased film presentation honoring Breonna Taylor, the African-American emergency room technician who was shot and killed in March during a police raid at her home in Louisville, Ky.

Sutton's illness lasted just over a month. On November 10, she texted her friends saying that she and her daughter had tested positive for the virus, adding, "Please keep us in your prayers." The next day, she reported acute nausea and fever. By November 17, she was hospitalized at the Touro Infirmary.

On November 22, she texted Matthews saying that her oxygen mask made talking difficult. Her condition apparently improved enough for doctors to move her from intensive care, but she died at the hospital on Thursday night.

The following day, television crews filming in the city paused production in her honor.

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.
Gwen Thompkins
Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.