Evelyn Preer (1896-1932) was one of the first Black actresses to earn celebrity status. She was known as “The First Lady of the Screen.”
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s leading lady was one of the first Black actresses to earn celebrity status. She was known as “The First Lady of the Screen.” Let’s talk about Evelyn Preer.
Evelyn Jarvis was born in 1896 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After her father died, Eveylyn’s family moved to Chicago, where she performed in Vaudeville shows and practiced “street preaching,” to raise funds to build a church. In 1915, when she was 19 years old, Evelyn married her first husband, Frank Preer.
In 1918, Evelyn met author and director Oscar Micheaux, who would become a highly influential African-American filmmaker. Micheaux made films for a predominantly Black audience, and was able to avoid stereotypes that Hollywood films incorporated.
Evelyn made her film debut in Oscar’s film The Homesteader, where she played a woman whose evil overbearing father causes her husband to abandon her. Oscar made Evelyn his go-to leading actress, and in 1920, she starred in Within Our Gates. She played a teacher who fights to save a school for Black children . It’s the only feature film Evelyn made that has survived to this day.
As her career blossomed, Evelyn played dramatic characters and was known for her versatility.
In between her films, Evelyn joined The Lafayette Players, a Black theatrical stock company. Since theaters were segregated by law in the South and by practice in the North, the Lafayette Players brought traditional theater to Black audiences throughout the US. She married her second husband, fellow actor Edward Thompson, while on tour.
In 1921, Evelyn performed in The Chip Woman’s Fortune, the first drama written by a Black playwright to appear on Broadway. The show only ran for two weeks, but W.E.B. DuBois said that “dramatically and spiritually it was one of the greatest successes this country has ever seen.”
In 1926, Evelyn landed a role in the successful Broadway production of Lulu Belle. She understudied and played the role of a Harlem prostitute. She then appeared in the West Coast revival of Sadie Thompson, where her performance garnered critical acclaim.
In addition to being a talented actor, Evelyn was a gifted vocalist. She thrived in cabaret and musical theater, and was occasionally accompanied by a young Duke Ellington and Red Nichols.
Evelyn starred in 16 films. She easily transitioned from silent films to talkies in the 1930 musical Georgia Rose—which was about a Black family migrating north.
In 1931, Evelyn performed in the film Ladies of the Big House alongside Sylvia Sidney, who was one of the most famous entertainers at the time. Her final role was in Blonde Venus, which starred Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Evelyn’s performance was uncredited.
Evelyn refused the roles that attempted to typecast her, and instead, continued acting in challenging roles that many Black actors at the time were not permitted to play.
In early 1932, Evelyn gave birth to her daughter, Edeve. Evelyn suffered postpartum complications and soon after died of double pneumonia. She was 36 years old.
Though her career ended prematurely, Evelyn left her mark on Hollywood and history. She is remembered as a pioneering actor and singer.
Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady.
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Talk to you tomorrow!