ARTSEDGE interviewed Sr. Francesca Thompson, the daughter of beloved 1920s-1930s actress Evelyn Preer, who starred in productions by the black acting troupe, the Lafayette Players, and many films by African-American director/producer Oscar Micheaux. Sr. Thompson, whose dissertation focused on the Lafayette Players, is Associate Professor of African Studies at Fordham University. In 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.