Marion Douglas

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Marion Douglas performed on the stages of Switzerland, France, and Italy in her father's Louis Douglas Revue; her father had choreographed on Broadway and in Paris for Josephine Baker; her grandparents, ragtime composer Will Marion Cook and the legendary singer Abbie Mitchell, had performed for royalty; and Uncle Mercer Cook was the head of French at Spelman College.

No monolingual backwater plebe was going to tell her where she could or could not dine.

Marion Douglas, also known as "Maranantha Quick," was born Abbie Louise Douglas in 1920 in North Marylebone, England. She grew up between the world wars touring Europe with her parents, based in Italy and Germany. Billed as an acrobatic dancer, she performed matinees with the revue while at the same time attending school in Catholic convents. With the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, her father decided that the family should return to the United States and that she should become educated as a Black American woman at Spelman College.

With greater fluency in French and Italian than in English and no knowledge of racism, Douglas arrived in Atlanta in 1937. Her interest in languages and theater became her means of coping with the "unreality" of life around her. Her work with the Atlanta Repertory Players at Spelman and the Hampton Institute's Summer Theatre program under the direction of Owen Dodson gave her a dramatic outlet for her frustration with America in 1938. She performed in Les precieuses ridicules in French, and in 1941 she played several roles, including the Countess in a noted performance of The Cherry Orchard and major parts in Tovarich, Cyrano de Bergerac, and racial plays Outward Bound and Elijah's Ravens.

The most noted role of her career was as Ophelia in Dodson's historic 1945 production of Hamlet at the Hampton Institute. Gordon Heath, who played the lead, recalls in his autobiography that Dodson felt she had over-researched the part, exclaiming, "Oh, how I hate thinking actors!" In spite of her excessive industry, Heath wrote, "Marion was still the best Ophelia I ever saw." Before Hamlet, she had already been working on the New York stage. In the 1945 season, she played the part of Sophie Baines in A Young American, produced by the Blackfriars Guild, an off-Broadway troupe that performed plays with Catholic and racial themes. In this play she worked with a young Black actor and fellow Dodson pupil who was to become a prolific filmmaker, William Greaves.

In 1982 and 1985, Douglas had cameo roles in his two award winning films commissioned by the National Park Service: Frederick Douglass: An American Life and Booker T. Washington: The Life and Legacy. Maintaining contact with the theater throughout her life, she worked in Uncle Vanya in 1984 as well as The Threepenny Opera and The Confidential Clerk at the Cynthia Belgrave Studio Theater in Brooklyn. When not on stage, Marion Douglas has been an educator, teaching French in the New York City public school system since the 1950s. Always committed to the theater, she designed a program for teaching languages to children through drama.

In the late 1960s, she directed the Children's Theater at the Harlem School of the Arts, where she introduced and wrote Black-centered material for the program. From 1971 until 1983, she set drama aside to investigate mysticism and tour as a psychic. Late in life Douglas stated her career objectives: "To express and create through humor; to enhance the vitality of life, and to communicate the mature outlook of age as a desirable achievement." She has continued to pursue these goals, working in Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign and serving on the New York State Committee on Multi-cultural Education. Although modest about her contribution to the theater, she offers the unique perspective of a Black American who grew up in Europe and has touched a wide network of dramatists and educators. BIBLIOGRAPHY



Sources for this article include:
  • Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Ed. Darlene Clark Hine.

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    Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024