By Leslye Joy Allen Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate
Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
One of the best things about research is that no matter how long you do it, you always find something new. As a historian, and particularly one that focuses on theatre, I am always amazed at the rich theatrical heritage of my own native city Atlanta, Georgia and the tremendous role our Historically Black Colleges have played in nurturing that heritage. There are certainly more facts about this facet of the city than appear on this list, but below are my first five favorite facts:
1. The founder of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the former slave Alonzo Herndon, had a wife that taught Drama and Speech to one of the first academic theatre groups at a historically Black college in the United States. An amazing thespian, Adrienne Elizabeth McNeill Herndon enjoyed a stellar reputation as an interpreter of Shakespeare. Married to Alonzo Herndon, she devoted much of her expertise to the students of *Atlanta University (then an undergraduate institution) in the late 19th century, helping to develop and found the Atlanta University Players (not to be confused with the Atlanta University Summer Theatre) and coaching it into an amazing group of actors that made its debut in 1895. However, Mrs. Herndon was a very fair complexioned woman. African American scholar Dr. W. E. B. DuBois had the best and most humorous story about her. Because of her acting abilities (and the fact that she was not always easily identifiable as Black), Thomas Dixon, a white racist playwright offered Mrs. Herndon a part in his play “The Klansman.” Writing in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in 1927, W. E. B. DuBois noted that Dixon offered her a role in his play in “blissful ignorance of” her race.
2. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre gave its first performance in the summer of 1934 and ran continually until 1977 making it the longest running Summer Stock Theatre in the United States. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre was made up of student and faculty actors & professors, visiting professors (and some local Atlanta actors) from *Atlanta University, Spelman College (all female), Morehouse College (all male), and later performers from *Clark College, and Morris Brown College. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre actors and directors performed five full-length plays over a six-week period, during June and July of each summer from 1934 through 1941 alone. The five-play, six week schedule was not completely abandoned until 1970 when the summer schedule was trimmed to three plays. (*Founded in 1865 Atlanta University was an undergraduate institution as was *Clark College, founded in 1869. During the school year 1929-1930, Atlanta University exclusively became a graduate school. In 1988, however, Atlanta University and Clark College merged and became Clark Atlanta University.)
3. One of the great scientific minds of our time was Morehouse College alumnus Dr. Samuel Nabrit, who earned a Ph.D. in Biology from Brown University in 1932. An accomplished Marine Biologist*, he taught at both Morehouse College and Atlanta University. In 1956, President Eisenhower appointed him to the National Board of the National Science Foundation and he served as Special Ambassador to Niger under President John F. Kennedy. (A biography and obituary on Dr. Samuel Nabrit in the New York Times.) Less well known is that Nabrit was a regular actor performing with the Atlanta University Summer Theatre when he taught at Morehouse College and Atlanta University during the 1930s. (Sidebar: *Marine Biology was the original academic major of actor Samuel L. Jackson, when he was a student at Morehouse College.)
4. A few weeks before her nineteenth birthday, Black Theatre legend (and then Howard University student) Shauneille Perry spent her summer in Atlanta and appeared as the character “Anias” in Alexander Dumas’ “Camille” during the 15th season (1948) of the Atlanta University Summer Theatre, directed by Owen Dodson. Shauneille Perry is one of the first Black women to direct an Off-Broadway play and has a long list of credits for both the stage and the screen. The United States Congress honored Perry in 2011 for her lengthy and prolific career as an actor, playwright and screenwriter.
5. The amazing and rather colorful director-actor-lighting and technical designer Dr. John McLinn Ross, both acted in plays and directed for the Atlanta University Summer Theatre during the 1930s. Like his colleagues who managed and directed the Atlanta University Summer Theatre (the principle director during the 1930s was Anne M. Cooke, a Spelman professor, along with Owen Dodson), he studied at Yale University’s School of Drama. Yet, Ross has the distinction of being the first Black person to receive the Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting, Directing, and Technical Directing from the Yale School of Drama in 1935, only four years after Yale graduated the first MFA graduates in Drama. Atlanta-based photographer & cultural chronicler Susan Ross is the great niece of Dr. John McLinn Ross.
Peace…To be continued…