A native of Washington, D.C., Clarke grew up in just the sort of community she sought to portray in Porgy and Bess. Segregation was still a harsh fact of life during her childhood. She recalled, for instance, how people shopped through mail-order catalogues in order to purchase clothes offered in stores where they were not welcome. "The black community, as I remember it, was very closely knit," Clarke said in the San Francisco Examiner: "Before the fabric of this society was torn by racism and lack of education, we all took care of each other. We all watched each other's children." In 1960, the still-teenaged Clarke landed a role in the original touring cast of West Side Story, a musical play about rival big city gangs. Following West Side Story, Clarke served as a principal dancer in two noted African-American dance troupes: the Katherine Dunham Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She was particularly prominent in the Alvin Ailey company and sometimes danced in partnership with Ailey himself. Clarke told Essence magazine that her years as a professional dancer helped her to prepare for the next stages in her career: "The discipline I learned in dance carried over into acting and directing," she said.
On Broadway, Clarke, who was also raised in New York City, appeared in West Side Story (1960), Hallelujah, Baby! (1967), Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope (1972), and Grind (1975), and choreographed Jelly's Last Jam (1992), for which she was nominated for a Tony and Drama Desk Award, and Caroline, or Change (2004). Clarke was also cast as Tia Mowry's grandmother in Seventeen Again. After leaving the Alvin Ailey group in the 1970s, Clarke moved into acting. Her most notable feature film performance was in A Piece of the Action (1977), starring comedian/actor Bill Cosby and Oscar-winning actor/director Sidney Poitier. She also appeared in guest roles on numerous television shows, including The Jeffersons, The Ropers, Hill Street Blues, Three's Company, and As the World Turns. Her Broadway credits include Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope, Purlie, and Hallelujah Baby. She also appeared in the critically acclaimed NBC-TV miniseries King (1978), which was based upon the life and ministry of the slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..
When not busy acting, Clarke was often called in to choreograph various stage and television shows. She discovered that she enjoyed the challenge of choreography and, after years as a dancer, was eminently qualified. Besides, she joked in Essence, "I had bills to pay." Clarke found ample opportunities to develop her choreographic skills and was rarely without a project either in America or abroad. She worked for the New York City-based Opera Ebony, helping to produce Porgy and Bess in such unlikely venues as Brazil and Finland. She earned a Tony Award nomination for choreography for her work in the 1992 Broadway hit Jelly's Last Jam. Over time, Clarke's choreographic talents were directed to projects as diverse as Dorothy Rudd Moore's Freedom and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Così fan tutte. All of these efforts helped to bring Clarke to the attention of opera and musical theater executives. One of them was David Gockley, general director of the Houston Grand Opera. Gockley had decided to create a whole new touring production of Porgy and Bess, and wanted an African-American director for the project. Clarke reportedly thought that the idea was splendid. "I've worked through the ranks, and I was ready for this," she recalled in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Elsewhere, in the San Diego Union-Tribune, she spoke to the contributions she could make to the play as an African American and a woman. Recalls Clarke of the plans for the Porgy & Bess production:
"As a director, I guess I bring in the female sensibilities," she said. "Since I'm also an actress, I've really tried to develop the characterizations so that the performers don't do a little singing here, and some acting there. And coming from a black perspective, I know how we think, how we feel, what we do. I understand the little things. That makes a difference."
Porgy and Bess was written by a white composer, George Gershwin, for an all-black cast. The story, set in a fictitious Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood called Catfish Row, revolves around a crippled beggar named Porgy, a sensuous woman named Bess, and two troublemakers, Crown and Sporting Life. Though Gershwin's score has always been highly popular, especially the ballad "Summertime", the characters and setting have drawn criticism for portraying African Americans in stereotypical ways. For example, Porgy begs for money, Bess takes lovers, Sporting Life sells drugs, and Crown is a murderer.
Although Clarke knew that she could not tamper with the essential plot and characterizations in the play, she still, nevertheless had several ideas about how to present the residents of Catfish Row in a more favorable light. She conceived her production of Porgy and Bess as a celebration of the lives of Charleston-based Gullahs, an African-American community believed to be Angolan in origin. Critic Kenneth Herman noted in the Los Angeles Times, "Clarke ... fleshed out the opera's Gullah context, using that culture's integrity to compensate for some of the lead characters' moral defects. She ... also made certain the cast knows how to pronounce Gullah dialect, which the opera's libretto employs."
Clarke was well aware that she was making history both by serving as director of a large-scale production and by her artistic decisions about the show. She told the Los Angeles Times: "I want African Americans who come to see the opera to be proud that an African American is directing ... and to recognize the people on stage. I wanted to draw a community which we could find today: It could be any poor community, but one with pride." She expanded upon this philosophy in Opera News: "In my production, everybody works. Everybody has some type of job. Just because you are poor doesn't mean you have to be slovenly or ignorant." Clarke's staging of Porgy and Bess toured several major American cities, including San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Minneapolis. It also played engagements in Japan and at Italy's famed La Scala opera house in Milan. Clarke received a Tony Award for her work on Porgy and Bess and has since kept a full schedule in New York City and elsewhere, choreographing various plays and musicals. Through her successes, she is paving the way for other talented artists. "Blacks and women have been locked out of directing major productions for too long," she asserted in Essence: "It's time for us not only to tell our stories but to direct them."1993 - Tony Award (nominated) – for choreography in Jelly's Last Jam
1995 - Tony Award (won) – for directing Porgy and Bess.