Adams, Osceola Macarthy 1890–1983
Osceola Macarthy Adams 1890–1983
Actress, stage director
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, such African-American actors and actresses as Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee were thought of as pioneers who helped black performers break into the field of dramatic arts. Even before these famous names, however, came a generation of African-American theatrical figures whose efforts have been mostly shrouded in obscurity. Among them was Osceola Macarthy Adams, who worked under the stage name Osceola Archer. Her career stretched from the 1930s to the 1970s, and she taught or inspired, in addition to the three performers mentioned above, an entire generation of black dramatic talent.
Of tri-racial ancestry (black, white, and Native American), Osceola Marie Macarthy was born in Albany, Georgia, on June 13, 1890. The daughter of a life insurance executive, she benefitted from some of the best educational opportunities available to a Southern black woman of the time: after attending schools in Albany, she enrolled at the private Fisk University Preparatory School in Nashville and then at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She studied ancient Greek and philosophy. Her philosophy professor was Alain Locke, the influential editor of The New Negro. Macarthy and 21 other Howard students founded the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, an organization primarily devoted to community service. By the time of her death in 1983 there were 713 chapters of the sorority around the country.
Acting held an attraction for Macarthy from the start, and in the spring of her senior year, 1913, Adams made her stage debut at Howard in a student production. After graduating from Howard, Macarthy in 1915 married Numa P. G. Adams, who later became the first dean of Howard’s medical school. At the time, however, Adams was still some time away from obtaining his own medical degree; the family moved to Chicago, and, facing considerable racial discrimination along the way, Adams completed his medical studies in 1929. While raising a young son, Osceola Adams helped to support her husband by working as a clothing designer at the J. Reinhardt firm in Chicago.
Perhaps grateful for the support and perhaps having premonitions of his own death that came in 1940, Dr. Numa Adams encouraged his wife to resume her dramatic studies. She enrolled at New York University,
At a Glance…
Born in Albany, GA, on June 13, 1890; died in New York, November 20, 1983; daughter of a life insurance executive; married Numa P.G. Adams, a physician and later dean of the Howard University Medical School; one son, Charles. Education: Fisk University Preparatory School, diploma; Howard University, B.A., 1913; New York University, M.A., 1936.
Career: Actress and director. Made stage debut in student production at Howard, 1913; worked as clothing designer in Chicago, 1920s, while her husband completed medical studies; made professional debut in summer theater, Putney, VT, 1934; adopted stage name Osceola Archer, 1930s; taught dramatic arts at Bennett College, NC, late 1930s; resident director, Putnam County (NY) Playhouse, 1946-56; top-level stage appearances, 1950s-1960s, including New York Shakespeare Festival production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; made television commercials, 1970s.
Member: American Negro Theater company, 1940-49; executive committee, Stage Door Canteen during World War II.
finishing an M.A. degree in 1936, and also taking acting and playwriting classes in hands-on theatrical organizations. In the summer theater season of 1934 she made her professional stage debut in the resort town of Putney, Vermont, playing a factory worker in a production called Strange House; that fall, she appeared on Broadway as a well-educated maid in Elmer Rice’s play, Between Two Worlds. It was in the 1930s that she adopted the professional name of Osceola Archer.
After receiving her degree Adams taught dramatic arts for a time at Bennett College in North Carolina, and she taught on and off for much of the rest of her life. But, difficult as it was for blacks to find theatrical work of any kind, much less roles that broke away from established stereotypes, she nevertheless gravitated strongly to the stage. In 1940 she appeared in a touring production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, one of the few works by a white playwright of the time to feature multidimensional African-American characters. While on tour, Adams heard about her husband’s death.
At the pioneering American Negro Theater (ANT), a New York group that was among the first on-going attempt to present black theatrical talent to the public, Adams added another facet to her repertoire of abilities: she directed several plays during her association with the group, which lasted from 1944 to 1948. Among them was a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in 1944; another was the comedy On Strivers’ Row in 1946, whose touring cast included a then-unknown entertainer named Harold Belafonte (who within the decade would rocket to popularity as Harry Belafonte).
During her acting career Adams suffered discrimination in various forms. Light-skinned, she sometimes disguised herself as white to attend plays at the National Theater in segregated Washington during her days at Howard University. According to a New York Times interview, she sometimes lost roles because she was told, in her own words, “You’re not Negroid enough, you’re too light, you will photograph too white, your speech is too perfect.” Through much of her career Adams worked to combat discrimination as a member of the Actors’ Equity labor union and serving on the organization’s Committee for Minority Affairs. As a result of an Actors’ Equity boycott, the National Theater eventually reversed its whites-only admissions policy.
Despite the problems she encountered, Adams found increasing success in the 1940s and 1950s. She won friends in the industry as a member of the executive committee of the Stage Door Canteen, a New York eatery that entertained U.S. military personnel during World War II, and in 1946 she became resident director at the Putnam County Playhouse outside New York. Her ten-year tenure there gave her a measure of stability that permitted her to explore roles with greater depth and variety than she had previously attempted.
The 1950s and 1960s saw Adams grace the stages where some of the top dramatic productions in the United States were being presented. Twice she appeared in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play whose chilling portrayal of the Salem witchcraft trials in colonial America served as an indictment of 1950s anti-Communist hysteria and of the country’s general closed-mindedness and bent toward irrational stereotyping. In 1960 she appeared in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet, joining the company for a national tour of high schools and colleges the following year, and in 1963 she appeared at the same National Theater in Washington where she had worn disguises to attend plays as a student.
Adams appeared in the film An Affair of the Skin in 1963 and spoke out in later life about how cinematic opportunities had been denied her because of her race. In 1978 Delta Sigma Theta named its award for achievement in the arts, the Osceola, after her. She was active in her profession well past the usual retirement age and made television commercials into the late 1970s. Osceola Adams died in New York on November 20, 1983, at the age of 93.
The Emperor Jones, 1935 (with Paul Robeson)
Our Town, American Negro Theater, 1944 (director)
On Strivers’ Row, American Negro Theater, 1946 (director)
The Crucible, 1953.
Romeo and Juliet, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1960.
Appeared in film An Affair of the Skin, 1963.
Hine, Darlene Clark, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Mapp, Edward, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, Scarecrow Press, 1990.
Mitchell, Loften, Black Drama, Hawthorn Books, 1967.
Notable Names in the American Theatre, James T. White and Co., 1976.
New York Times, August 27, 1968, p. 83; November 24, 1983, p. B16.
Washington Post, November 25, 1983, p. B6.
—James M. Manheim
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