See more of the story

A Twin Cities theater pioneer who helped shaped Minnesota's arts ecology, appeared on Broadway, performed in the first national tour of "The Wiz," and was the State Department's cultural envoy to Central Asia and the Baltics, has died.

Lewis Whitlock III, who also was in the founding company of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and brought "Black Nativity" to Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, died Sept. 11 at age 72.

The lyrical dancer, actor, choreographer and director died of cardio-pulmonary arrest, said his brother, Kevin Whitlock. He said his brother also suffered from urothelial cancer.

A child prodigy, Whitlock starting taking dance classes at age 4 in his native Minneapolis. He so impressed his teachers with his passion and polish that by the time he was a teenager, he was performing professionally.

The millions of patrons who have attended shows at Chanhassen, the nation's largest theater of its kind, owe him a debt, said director Gary Gisselman, who cast Whitlock in Chanhassen's very first show, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" in 1968.

"I'd worked with Lewis at Bloomington Civic in about five or six shows by the time he was 15, and he was one of the top dancers in the Twin Cities," Gisselman said. "He worked really hard and expected people to work just as hard to do things well. He broke a lot of ground for Black performers because he was always working and had this personal discipline."

At Chanhassen, Whitlock performed in such productions as "West Side Story" and "Guys and Dolls" and, later in the 1980s, directed "Tintypes" and "The Fantasticks."

Theatergoers who have seen "Black Nativity" at Penumbra also owe the experience to Whitlock.

"The idea of doing 'Black Nativity' was his brainchild," said Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy. "I wouldn't have done it without him."

While companies across the nation were sticking to Langston Hughes' rudimentary script — an oratorio with two dancers, a choir and a narrator — "Lewis came up with the idea to set it in Joplin, Mo., [Hughes' birthplace] with the idea of showing folks leaving slavery and celebrating their first Christmas after Emancipation," Bellamy said. "We did that for years, and it just grew and grew."

Whitlock also directed musicals for Penumbra, including "Lost in the Stars."

"Lewis was wound pretty tight and didn't suffer fools at all," Bellamy said. "But what made him specialwas what he put onstage. He mixed classical and popular dance with African-American culture."

Born March 7, 1949, in Minneapolis, Whitlock grew up in a neighborhood (E. 38th Street and Clinton Avenue) eight blocks from the intersection that would become a pilgrimage site for George Floyd decades later. When he was a child, his father, Lewis Whitlock Jr., operated a dry cleaning business.

"But then [highway] 35W came through and paved right over it," Kevin Whitlock said.

Whitlock's parents were very involved in community, imparting a sense of civic responsibility and service to their six children, of which Lewis III was the oldest. Lewis Whitlock Jr. would later go to work in the factory, Spicer Heavy Axle. The family matriarch, Beverley Whitlock, worked as a photo librarian at the Star Tribune.

The Whitlock children had music in their blood. Kevin Whitlock, a retired police sergeant, spent more than a decade playing percussion with the Grammy-winning Sounds of Blackness, where his wife, Jennifer Whitlock, sang. His sister, Dara Whitlock Ceaser, also sang with the group.

"Lewis thought of his work as service," Kevin Whitlock said. "We were all taught that."

Dance teacher Barbara Lotsberg, who ran a dance studio for over 50 years, taught Whitlock from when he was 4 all the way until he was in high school.

"He knew his craft and he had this beautiful style that was all his own — real smooth," Lotsburg said. "His dance was balletic but it was also jazzy. He could do tap, ballet, modern — he combined it all."

It was Lotsburg who brought him to the Bloomington Civic, which, in turn, led to Chanhassen, where he was acting while also student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He would commute for shows at Chanhassen then back to classes in River Falls.

"He was so disciplined, so careful and planned out, that one time we got caught in a snowstorm on the way back to River Falls. It was whiteout conditions and he steered that little Volkswagen Beetle right through the storm. That was so Butchie," Kevin Whitlock recalled, invoking the family's nickname for him.

Other nicknames included Bo Peep, partly for his calming steadiness, and Brother-in-Law Almighty.

After college, Whitlock moved to New York to study dance with renowned Tony Award-winning choreographer George Faison. Like Alvin Ailey, Faison combined jazz, modern, ballet and African styles, and he tapped Whitlock for the first national tour of "The Wiz" in 1976.

"At that particular time, coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, we had to teach the people about us, about our humanity and strength and beauty," Faison said. "You tell stories with ballet — that's what he was so excellent at, speaking without words. Lewis was very pulled up. He was smooth and expressive and knew the magic that we wanted to create, how with one piece of cloth [in 'The Wiz'], we could make a tornado. It's such a huge loss."

Whitlock's Broadway credits include the short-lived musicals "Reggae" and "Zoot Suit."

In 2009, Whitlock conducted master classes in Kazakhstan under the aegis of the U.S. Embassy there, and also choreographed and directed numbers from "Damn Yankees," "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "How to Succeed in Business" at the Aktobe Oblast Philharmonic.

He also did similar work in Riga, Latvia.

Whitlock, who earned a master of fine arts degree in theater at Minnesota State University, Mankato, taught at McNeese State University, Louisiana State University, St. Cloud State University, Mankato State University, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and Carleton College. He also taught in the public schools whenever he could, including at St. Paul Central and North high schools.

"He started a lot of us out on a level of professional work that put us ahead of a lot of young people," said Thomasina Petrus, who took classes with Whitlock at North High and was in the school's production of "The Wiz." "We were crazy to please him. And a lot of us out here now — T. Mychael Rambo, Peter Macon, Austene Van — we owe a lot to him."

Whitlock's last major show in the Twin Cities was "The Color Purple," which he directed and choreographed for St. Paul's Park Square Theatre in 2015.

"Dance, like any other art form, is a form of expression …v ery basic expression," Whitlock said in 1973 in a recording archived at the Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota. "There's a rhythm to everything, if you listen. There's a rhythm to the cars moving down the street, to a water faucet … if you think about walking the right way, it can be dance."

Whitlock never married. Besides Kevin Whitlock of Brooklyn Park and Dara Whitlock Ceaser of Coon Rapids, survivors include siblings Paul Whitlock of Minneapolis and Saundra Hayes of South Sioux City, Neb., and several nieces and nephews.

A public memorial will be at 1-3 p.m. Oct. 9 at Sabathani Community Center, 310 E. 38th St., Minneapolis. Attendees are asked to be vaccinated and wear masks.