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Publicity photo of Preer (1923)
July 16, 1896
Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||November 27, 1932 (aged 36)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Edward Thompson (1924–1932; her death)|
Evelyn Preer, born Evelyn Jarvis (July 16, 1896 – November 27, 1932), was a pioneering African-American stage and screen actress and blues singer of the 1910s through the early 1930s. Evelyn was known within the black community as "The First Lady of the Screen."
She was the first black actress to earn celebrity and popularity. She appeared in ground-breaking films and stage productions, such as the first play by a black playwright to be produced on Broadway, and the first New York-style production with a black cast in California in 1928, in a revival of a play adapted from Somerset Maugham's Rain.
Born Evelyn Jarvis in Vicksburg, Mississippi in July 26, 1896, after her father died prematurely she migrated with her mother and her three other siblings to Chicago. She then continued to complete grammar and high school in the city. Her early experiences with Vaudeville and street preaching with her mother are what jump-started her acting career.
Career in Cinema
At the age of 23 Evelyn's first film role was in Oscar Micheaux's 1919 debut film The Homesteader, in which she played a sweet girl by the name of Orlean. Preer was promoted by Micheaux as his leading actress with a steady tour of personal appearances and a publicity campaign, she was one of the first African American women to become a star to the black community. Her most well-known film role is in Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates, (1920) in which Preer plays a school teacher by the name of Sylvia Landry who needs to raise money to save her school.
She would then continue her extremely successful career by starring in a total of 16 films. Micheaux developed many of his subsequent films to showcase Preer's extraordinary versatility. These included The Brute (1920), The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921), Deceit (1923), Birthright (1924), The Devil’s Disciple (1925), The Conjure Woman (1926) and The Spider’s Web (1926). Preer had her talkie debut in the 1930 race musical, Georgia Rose. In 1931 she performed onscreen opposite Sylvia Sidney in the film Ladies of the Big House. Her final film performance was as Lola, a prostitute, in Josef von Sternberg's 1932 film, Blonde Venus, playing opposite Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich. Preer was lauded by both the black and white press for her ability to continually succeed in ever more challenging roles "...her roles ran the gamut from villain to heroine an attribute that many black actresses who worked in Hollywood cinema history did not have the privilege or luxury to enjoy."  Only her film by Micheaux and three shorts survive. She was also known for refusing to play roles that she believed demeaned African Americans.
Career in Theatre
In 1920, Evelyn Preer joined The Lafayette Players in Chicago. The Lafayette Players were a theatrical stock company that was founded in 1915 by Anita Bush, a pioneering stage and film actress known as “The Little Mother of Black Drama.” Bush and her acting troupe toured the US to bring legitimate theatre to black audiences, at a time when theatres were racially segregated by law in the South, and often by custom in the North and the interest of Vaudeville was fading. The Lafayette Players brought true drama to black audiences which caused it to flourish until its end during the Great Depression.
By the mid-1920s, Preer began garnering much attention from the white press and she began to appear in "crossover" films and stage parts. In 1923, she acted in the Ethiopian Art Theatre's production of The Chip Woman's Fortune by Willis Richardson. This was the first dramatic play by an African-American playwright to be produced on Broadway yet the plays repertory season only lasted two weeks. In 1926, Preer had a successful stint on Broadway in David Belasco’s production of Lulu Belle. Preer supported and understudied the actress Lenore Ulric in the leading role of Edward Sheldon's steamy drama of a Harlem prostitute. She garnered acclaim in Sadie Thompson, in a West Coast revival of Somerset Maugham’s play about a fallen woman.
She rejoined the Lafayette Players for that production in their first show in Los Angeles at the Lincoln Center. Under the leadership of Robert Levy, Preer and her colleagues performed in the first New York-style play featuring black players to be produced in California. That year she also appeared in Rain, a play adapted from Maugham's short story by the same name.
Preer was also an accomplished vocalist, She performed in cabaret and musical theater where she was occasionally backed by such diverse musicians as Duke Ellington and Red Nichols early in their careers. Preer was regarded by many as the greatest actress of her time.
Marriage and family
Preer met her husband Edward Thompson when they were both acting with the Lafayette Players in Chicago. They married in 1924 while in Nashville, Tennessee.
In April 1932, Preer gave birth to her only child, daughter Edeve Thompson. Developing post-childbirth complications, Preer died of double pneumonia on November 27, 1932 in Los Angeles, at the age of 36. Her husband, Edward Thompson, continued as a popular leading man and "heavy" in numerous race films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and died in 1960. Their daughter Edeve Thompson converted to the Roman Catholic Church as a teenager. She later entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana, where she became known as Sister Francesca Thompson, O.S.F., and became an academic, teaching at both Marian University in Indiana and Fordham University in New York City.
- The Homesteader (1919)
- Within Our Gates (1920)
- The Brute (1920)
- The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921)
- Deceit (1923)
- Birthright (1924)
- The Devil's Disciple (1926)
- The Conjure Woman (1926)
- The Spider's Web (1926)
- The Wedding March (1928) uncredited
- The Framing of the Shrew (1928)
- Melancholy Dame (1928)
- Oft in the Silly Night (1928)
- Georgia Rose (1930)
- Ladies of the Big House (1931)
- Blonde Venus (1932)
- Bowser, Pearl. Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era, Bloomington, Indiana.: Indiana University Press, 2001, pp. 19–33
- Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 324–25.
- Cripps, Thomas. "Evelyn Preer Pioneer Black Actress Born". African American Registry.
- Evelyn Preer on IMDb
- Regester, Charlene (2010). African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780253354754.
- Joseph Worrell, "Evelyn Preer", Silent Era: Silent Era People,accessed 29 September 2011
- Peterson, Jane (June 1994). "Pride and Prejudice: The Demise of Ethiopian Art Theatre". Theatre History Studies. 14: 141.
- Evelyn Preer at the Internet Broadway Database
- Schaber, Greg (October 1, 2005). "Profile: Francesca Thompson, O.S.F." Xavier Magazine. Retrieved May 29, 2017.