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March 12, 2020

The Community Players: Noblesville’s African American Theater Troupe

The Community Players: Noblesville’s African American Theater Troupe

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

A new piece has been added to the history of theater in Noblesville, thanks to research done by Lezli R. Davis. Twentieth century theater groups in the city started with the Noblesville “Little Theatre” society, which did shows between 1929 and 1935. Along with this, Noblesville High School produced plays and had a Thespian Society. In 1951, an amateur troupe did a production of “The Man who Came to Dinner” which was well received. Then in June of 1965, the Hamilton County Theater Guild was organized. The new information is that, in the midst of this, the African American residents of Noblesville created a theater troupe that tackled difficult plays and performed with a diverse cast. The group was called “The Community Players”.

The key motivator of the organization seems to have been a man named Jack D. Brinson, who was not a native of Hamilton County. The newspaper said that he had attended Northwestern University and had directed productions at Karamu House, a nationally recognized African American theater organization in Cleveland, OH. He may have been the same person who had been a theater student at Sacramento University in 1946. It’s not known why he was in Noblesville.

The Community Players chose serious and complex plays to perform. This may have been in response to the portrayal of African Americans in the minstrel shows put on by the local white community as charity fundraisers. Despite good intentions, these shows were offensive to African Americans and to modern sensibilities.

The first show produced was “Present Laughter”, a sophisticated comedy written by Noel Coward. It was staged June 28, 1956, at the Noblesville Junior High School gym. (The Junior High School was in the old high school building on Conner Street and the gym is the only part still standing.) Wilma Battey Avery played the female lead, with many of the other cast member coming from Indianapolis. We don’t have a copy of the actual cast list, but newspaper accounts give the following names:

  • Wilma Battey Avery – “Liz Essendine”
  • William H. Strong, Jr. – “Garry Essendine”
  • Delores L. Porter – “Monica Reed”
  • Jack Brinson – “Roland Maule”
  • Kenneth White – “Fred, the valet”
  • Gloria Ramona Reeves – [“Daphne Stillington”?]
  • Jeanne E. Hull – [“Joanna Lyppiatt”?]
  • Omar K. Nelson
  • Jacque N. Sneed
  • Barbara Sneed

Ticket sales were conducted by Jacqueline Williams, Maizie Glover, Murphy White, and Kenneth White. The furniture for the set was loaned by the Noblesville Furniture Company, which was owned and operated by Vin Haggan. The Ledger newspaper gave a very complementary review of the performance, which said that “theater-goers were given a treat” and that the show was “highly acclaimed” with the audience “eagerly looking forward” to the next production.

The second production was “Summer and Smoke” written by Tennessee Williams. It was staged August 31, 1956, at the Logan Theater and newspaper accounts give the cast and crew as follows:

  • Eunice White – “Alma Winemiller”
  • Ernest Butler, Jr. – “John Buchanan, Jr.”
  • Wilma Battey Avery
  • Natalie Glover
  • Kenneth White
  • Betty Scott
  • Norman Grundy
  • Hazel Barber
  • Harry Taylor
  • Duane Odle
  • Jim Tener
  • Steve Thom
  • Thelma Dean Vandiver
  • Nancy Taylor – Production Manager
  • Costumes:
    • Maizie Glover
    • Connie Holman
    • Harriet Howard
    • Alice Jane Asher
    • Judi Howard
    • Betty Parrott
    • Barbara Parrott
    • Phyllis Scott
    • Marguerite Bush
  • Technical crew:
    • Robert White
    • George Barker
    • Jerry Avery

An interesting point was the diversity of the cast. The first play had Omar K. Nelson, who was white. The second play had a group of white high school students in the cast and crew – Harry Taylor, Duane Odle, Jim Tener, Steve Thom, Thelma Dean Vandiver, Nancy Taylor, and George Barker. It’s not known how the students became involved in the production, although they and some of the younger African American performers were members of the Noblesville High School Thespian Society.

An integrated theatrical troupe was a good step for Noblesville. In the 1950’s, the city was dealing with segregation issues, most notably at the Forest Park pool. There was also segregation in housing, restaurants, and movie theaters. It’s ironic that the Logan Theater was used for the show. The business had started in the 1920’s as the “U. S. Theater” and was pro-Ku Klux Klan and ran Klan-related movies. When the Community Players were organized in 1956, this new, diverse group of actors was a hopeful sign that things were changing.

The local newspaper again gave the show a good review. There had been a smaller audience than expected, but the paper said:

“This young dramatic group is merely learning, as scores of similar entrepreneurs have learned again and again in Indiana, that the desire for culture is hard to come by and that it requires the combined and continued efforts of a community to create it.”

After the second production the Players announced their planned season – “The Solid Gold Cadillac” written by Abe Burrows, “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” by Frederick Knott, “Kind Sir” by Norman Krasna (the play was later made into the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman movie “Indiscreet”), “Street Scene” by Elmer Rice, and “The Shrike” by Joseph Kramm. However, none were ever staged. Apparently, the group dissolved and Brinson moved back to California.

This is a notable piece of Noblesville history and it would be nice if there was more known about it than a few brief articles in the newspapers. Fortunately, there are still people from that time period around the area and they may be able to give more details. If more information appears, I will do a follow-up post about it.

Thanks to Lezli R. Davis and Bryan Glover for bringing this to my attention.