On August 31, 1949, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt made her way to the SS Stavergerfjord to see off twenty-one Howard University students and faculty leaving on a European sojourn. All members of the Howard University Players, the group was embarking on a lengthy tour of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany that would earn them rave reviews from some of Europe’s most prominent critics. Their expedition included fifty-nine performances in nine cities as the troupe offered Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck as well as Dorothy and duBose Heyward’s Mamba’s Daughters.
The tour took shape after an offering of Ibsen’s play on campus the previous autumn. Several officials from the Norwegian Embassy who had been in attendance declared—as several critics would during the tour—the performance to rank among the most authentic offered by a non-Norwegian company. The diplomats asked Professor Anne Cooke if the company could make the trip. Cooke, at the time, thought the question a pleasant gesture and was surprised when she realized the offer was a serious one.
(Original photo caption: August 31, 1949) As a Howard University Trustee, Eleanor Roosevelt bids farewell to 21 African American students and three faculty members of Howard University, before they sail off on the SS Stavangerfjord cruise ship. They will present a repertory of three plays in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Near Mrs. Roosevelt are James Butcher (second left from Roosevelt), Dr. Anne Cooke (left of Roosevelt), and Owen Dodson (front, far right). (Photo: Bettmann. Used with permission.)
The proposed tour caught the rising tensions of the era throughout Europe between West and East, exemplifying an emerging American interest in cultural diplomacy. Embraced by the highest levels of the Truman administration, the Howard thespians received funds from the Norwegian Parliament and the US Department of State, with logistical assistance from the US High Command in Europe. The Howard Players’ 1949 tour earned immediate historical significance as the first effort by the US government to send cultural troupes abroad to gain friends in the developing global struggle with the Soviet Union. Their success convinced Washington decision-makers to invest heavily in such tours throughout the remainder of the Cold War.
After months of rehearsal, the tour sets sail.
Faculty members Cooke, James W. Butcher Jr., and Owen Dodson (shown above) used the nine-day transatlantic crossing to rehearse for the grueling schedule ahead. Immediately after settling in with Norwegian host families upon landing in Bergen, officials whisked the group to the US Embassy for the first of many receptions, this one hosted by Ambassador Charles Ulrick Bay for Crown Prince Olaf, his wife Marta, and their two daughters. The Players quickly hit the stage at Oslo’s Det Nye Teater, where the overflowing audience greeted the company’s first performance of Ibsen with eight curtain calls.
The players perform Ibsen before Scandinavian audiences
The tour continued to Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, alternating Ibsen’s The Wild Duck with the Heywards’s Mamba’s Daughters before sold-out theaters, while receiving curious-to-rave reviews. Christen Fribert told Danish readers that “the young actors have wanted to emphasize that they are not professional actors and this is very sensible because they are not. But they are clever young people who evidently love to play and they devote themselves to their parts with great enthusiasm;” while Paul Gjesdahl reported in Oslo that “the American Wild Duck was a solid, intelligent, and cultured performance—one had to admit the assurance and the sensitiveness those Negro amateurs possessed.” By contrast, Henrik Neiiendam found it “difficult to judge the Howard Players’ performances last night because it is based upon a temperament and a tradition we don’t quite understand.” The tour came to a close after Thanksgiving dinner at the US Army base in Kitzingen, Germany.
“The trip and those people saved me from ever being a racist.” Marilyn Berry
Cast members Graham Brown, Roxie Roker, Zaida Coles, William Brown, Marilyn Berry, and Shauneille Perry went on to enjoy successful theatrical careers. Berry later remarked that “we were treated so dearly by the Norwegians. At that time, meat was rationed; they had it only once a week. They gave up their stamps so we could have meat. The trip and those people saved me from ever being a racist.” Within months of the Players’ return, the US Congress passed legislation enabling the US Information Service to send American dance, film, art, music, and theater to the world.
The Players’ 1949 tour marked the culmination of a three-decade effort to elevate the university’s campus drama club into a major force defining the African American presence on stage. Led by T. Montgomery Gregory, and several others, this process accelerated after the return to campus of the Harvard alumnus—and first African American Rhodes Scholar—Alain LeRoy Locke in 1918 upon completion of his doctoral degree at Harvard.
The Players remained part of what the magisterial Washington historian, Constance McLaughlin Green, accurately called Washington’s “Secret City.” But there was nothing secret about Washington’s vibrant and dynamic African American community for anyone – including Scandinavian diplomats, critics, and audiences — who wanted to know.