The timing of “Geoffrey & Carmen: A Memoir in Four Movements,” a new exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African American History, seems especially propitious. The show highlights two undersung black cultural icons, Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade, who have been married for more than 50 years. Black History Month and Valentine’s Day: two birds, one stone. But no, it’s purely a coincidence, says Raymond Ward, DuSable’s media-relations director and one of the exhibit organizers. “It was supposed to happen in August  to celebrate Geoffrey’s birthday,” Ward says, but the museum needed more time. “Geoffrey has done exhibits before, but we wanted this to be about both of them. Carmen is just as exciting.”
Even if their names don’t immediately ring a bell, you’ve probably encountered the prolific artistic output of Holder, 83, and De Lavallade, 81. Ever seen the original film version of Annie? (Holder played Punjab.) Watched those 7UP commercials from the ’70s? (He’s the guy in the white hat talking about “uncola.”) Caught anything by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater? (De Lavallade was Ailey’s first muse.)
Originally from Trinidad, Holder moved to the U.S. for his promising dance career in 1952. De Lavallade grew up in Los Angeles. They met as cast members in the Broadway musical House of Flowers in 1954. Within four days of their meeting, Holder proposed.
Holder, who paints, dances and designs costumes, among many other activities, won Tony Awards for Best Director and Best Costume Design for The Wiz in 1975. De Lavallade, a dancer, actor and singer, choreographed and directed operas and taught movement to Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Henry Winkler, among others, at Yale.
When De Lavallade and Holder learned the DuSable was interested in mounting an exhibit on them, they were thrilled. “I thought it was a really wonderful idea,” De Lavallade says by phone from New York, where she and Holder live. “When I look at what Geoffrey and I have done, that I experienced all of that, not many people get that privilege.”
“Geoffrey & Carmen,” whose four movements or themes are theater, art, dance and design, is the first DuSable exhibit to tour nationally; it will stop in L.A. and Trinidad. Of the more than 90 personal items, notable pieces include a nude sculpture (“My lady!” De Lavallade exclaims when I mention it. “That was my first sculpture. I took a class”); a very heavy gold coat that Holder designed for De Lavallade to wear to the Kennedy Center Honors (“That was our Christmas treat to ourselves. Every year, we’d go to the Kennedy Center Honors, and Geoffrey would design two dresses for me”); and a bust of Billie Holiday made of black masking tape and a propeller fan. “He has a very special eye,” De Lavallade says of her spouse.
Throughout their adventures, their interactions with stars such as Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker and Benny Goodman, De Lavallade says they have been nothing but supportive of each other. “We appreciate each other’s work,” she says. “He gives me freedom, and I give him freedom.” A good tip for both marriage and art.