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Early Life[edit]

Born Evelyn Jarvis in Vicksburg, Mississippi in July 26th 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[edit]

At the age of 23 Evelyn's first film role was in Oscar Micheaux's 1919 debut film The Homesteader, were 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.[1] Her most well-known film role is in Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates, (1920) were 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 staring 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.[2] 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." [3] Only her film by Micheaux and three shorts survive.[4] She was also known for refusing to play roles that she believed demeaned African Americans.

Career in Theatre[edit]

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.”[4] 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 Vaudville was fading. The Lafayette Players brought true drama to black audiences which caused it to flourish in till 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.[5] This was the first dramatic play by an African-American playwright to be produced on Broadway yet the plays repetory season only lasted two weeks.[6] 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.[4]

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.[4]

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.

  1. ^ Cripps, Thomas. "Evelyn Preer Pioneer Black Actress Born". African American Registry. 
  2. ^ NJacobLamb/sandbox on IMDb
  3. ^ Regester, Charlene (2010). African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780253354754. 
  4. ^ a b c d Joseph Worrell, "Evelyn Preer", Silent Era: Silent Era People,accessed 29 September 2011
  5. ^ Peterson, Jane (June 1994). "Pride and Prejudice: The Demise of Ethiopian Art Theatre". Theatre History Studies. 14: 141. 
  6. ^ NJacobLamb/sandbox at the Internet Broadway Database