the following transcript, Sr. Thompson provides an oral history
describing the development of the Lafayette Players and its
relevance to black theatre.
The Harlem Renaissance was a rebirth. [Black
theatre] was a part of this great burst of energy that came
out of Harlem—literary as well as dramatically. [People
cite literary works first] because these are what have been
saved. Unfortunately we don't have the films or any records
of the plays. My dissertation, as far as I know, was one of
the first things written about the Lafayette Players. So much
has gone down the tubes because it wasn't considered important
enough to record. ...
The Lafayette Players was started by a young
performer named Anita Bush. Anita was the daughter of a costumer
from Harlem, and he made costumes for many of the white performers
in New York. Anita and her sister had been given the job of
delivering some of these costumes. Because of that, they got
to see some of the legitimate dramas in theaters where blacks
really were not permitted to attend.
Although Ms. Bush was a dancer, she had
a great desire to prove that blacks could do more than just
sing and dance. ...She wasn't even 20-years-old at the time.
Unfortunately one night in a theater backstage, where there
was very little light, she stumbled and fell. A ladder fell
on her back and that laid her up for a year. That was the
end of her ambition to be a dancer.
Toward the end of her recuperation, she
went to a theater in Harlem.... There were only two theaters
that catered to blacks, so Anita went to the Lincoln Theater.
It had recently been refurbished ... and it was beautiful.
But there were very few people sitting in the theater. Vaudeville
was dying and movies were beginning to take over.
She sat there in the theater and thought,
"this is a shame for this theater to just go down the
drain like this." There was a woman named Marie Downs
who was the manager of the theater. After the movie, [Anita]
went backstage and ... began using her acting abilities. She
said to Ms. Downs, "How would you like to have your theater
full instead of with just the pittance of an audience that
you had today?" And Anita said, "I have a dramatic
stock company that I will be glad to hire out to the theater
if you're interested."
Of course, Marie Downs—like everyone
else—had never heard of any serious black actors. There
had not been any real input from black actors since way back
in the 1800s when Ira Aldridge and James Hewlitt tried to
start a Shakespearean theater. And, of course, they were drummed
out of the city by Ku Klux Klan members and other people that
could not see blacks doing serious theater.
So Ms. Downs said she'd be interested in
seeing whatever [Bush] had. She said, "I'll bring my
group of actors in to talk to you and sign some papers on
Monday morning." (This was a Saturday afternoon.) Anita
said that she went out on the street and just grabbed any
warm body passing by who she thought had any kind of talent.
One of the first people she stopped was Charles Gilpin, who
was to become a very famous black actor later on. There was
Carlotta Freeman who was not a performer but a very beautiful,
imposing—looking woman who said she'd be interested
in doing whatever Bushy-that was [Anita Bush's] nickname—was
interested in doing.
[She also stopped] Andrew Bishop, a performer
around Harlem who did what they called tab acts (10-minute
comedy acts in between longer shows) in between the Vaudevillian
acts. [He was] a very handsome man of great stature. Then
she stopped a young man who was known as a musician but had
also done some comedy in vaudeville. This young man was to
become known to many audiences later when an actor from Hollywood
was to say to him, "Play it Again, Sam." His name
was Dooley Wilson. She had her initial group of players, called
the Bush Players. She took them into Ms. Downs and they signed
a very loose contract and said that they would be ready to
open in a short time.
They opened in November 1915, and they played
at the theater for a short while. Then Ms. Downs did a thing
that was very smart. She said let's change the name of the
group to the Marie Downs Players. When I interviewed Ms. Bush,
she was about 90-years-old, still with lots of fire in her
eyes. She said, "I don't know what got into me, but I
said, 'No, you're not taking my name. And if you don't want
us here with my name, I'll go to your rival theater' (the
Lafayette)." Which is what she did.
At the Lafayette Theatre, she said, "I
don't know when it happened or when it first occurred, but
when they started calling my group the Lafayette Players I
didn't mind as much." Later on, Anita was to be invited
to Chicago to start another group ... not to start a rival
group, but to have another group performing in Chicago.
By 1922 my mother [Evelyn Preer] had joined
the Chicago group. She had acted for the black film director/producer
Oscar Micheaux, but she joined the Lafayette Players in 1922
and during that time she met my father who was one of their
stars. My father had joined the players in New York and replaced
an actor that had been very popular in Harlem—Lawrence
Chenault, [who] had given Anita some personal problems. She
fired [Chenault], and my father stepped in to take his place
when he was only 17- or 18-years-old.
The Players were, by 1924, to be divided
into four different groups—the group in Harlem at the
Lafayette, the group in Chicago, a group traveling up and
down the East coast in the black theaters, and then a group
that traveled throughout the South that starred my mother
and father. They introduced black serious drama in more than
25 cities, to people that had never seen blacks doing any
kind of drama.
What were the plays they did? Exactly what
was being done on Broadway. In my dissertation I list over
200 plays that were never done before or since by black performers.
I think that their job was not only to demonstrate what could
be done but also to educate the black audiences. Many of the
theaters in the South were still segregated so they didn't
have white audiences coming to the theater.
According to Ms. Bush, she was trying to
prove that they could do exactly what whites did, so it wasn't
a big thing to produce black playwrights or get black playwrights
on the boards. She was interested in getting black actors
on the boards. I feel like [criticizing black actors for performing
white plays] is the same as criticizing a group for fighting
a war without the use of military arms if they haven't been
given them. What were the black dramatic works that were being
written? Where would they have gotten their material? And
when Willis Richardson ... did his three one-act plays, my
mother starred in one of those plays. I think that they did
what they could with what they had.
The Lafayette Players did a Shakespeare
play, and there was a critic in the New York Sun
who wrote . . . this blistering review of how stupid it was
for colored actors to try to speak the King's English when
they couldn't speak English. It was a terrible review. At
the bottom of it, [the critic said,] "Of course, I haven't
been to see it. I wouldn't waste my time."
[White audiences] were definitely not ready,
just as the black audiences weren't ready. But Producer David
Belasco sometimes rented a theater late at night and allowed
my mother to play the lead in plays like Rain that
she had understudied for Lenore Ulric. I have a letter that
was written by Theodore Dreiser, who wrote American Tragedy,
saying that he had never seen the kind of acting that he saw
in Salome. My mother starred in Salome.
By 1928, the Depression was hitting everybody
hard, and it's always performers that get hit first. The Players
were bought by a white company and taken to Los Angeles where
they performed until 1932. At the time of my mother's death,
the Players died at the same time and they never performed
again as the Lafayette Players.
When I was privileged to interview
Clarence Muse who was one of the first members of the Players—one
of the early members—Clarence said, "We knocked
down a door. We opened the door that had never even been cracked
before. And we gave people encouragement that they never had."
...I think that it was a great source of encouragement and
I think that many actors today built on the foundation that
was laid those many, many years ago.