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Thelma Myrtle Duncan (Brown)
1902 - ?
writer, playwright, and music teacher

Thelma Myrtle Duncan was among an elite group of Black University student playwrights in America who established themselves as “cornerstones” of an emerging National Negro Theatre, during the early decades of the 20th century.

The St. Louis, Missouri-born writer received her college education at Howard University, Washington, DC and Columbia University, New York. At Howard, during the 1920s, she discovered her talents as a writer, under the tutelage of Thomas Montgomery Gregory, founder and first director of the University’s acclaimed Department of Dramatics and Public Speaking. Her play, “The Death Dance,” written while a student in Gregory’s class in 1921 and later published in Plays of Negro Life (1927), edited by Gregory and Alain Locke, was among the earliest productions of the Howard Players, the school’s drama troupe.

Other works produced by the Howard players included those by Howard-trained playwrights Helen Webb, “Genefrede” (1922)1 and DeReath Irene (Beausey) Byrd, “The Yellow Tree” (1922)2. In 1923, the Howard Players presented “The Death Dance” in Rankin Memorial Chapel on the Howard campus and Baltimore’s Douglass Theatre to help fund a theatre laboratory at Howard University.

Duncan graduated from Howard (cum laude) with a degree in music and reluctantly embarked on a career as a music teacher, working in North Carolina while continuing to write, before setting out on a motor trip through New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Mexico. By 1929, the writer had returned to La Junta, Colorado and the home of her parents, with the hope of pursuing a full-time writing career.

In 1930, a revised version of Duncan’s one-act play “Sacrifice” was published in playwright Willis Richardson’s Core CollectionPlays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro3. However, the then twice-published playwright had earned little money from her craft and regretfully continued giving music lessons to earn a living. Duncan expressed her dismay in a 1931 letter to Gregory, who continued to mentor her well after her Howard days:

“I was never fond of my work as a teacher, and I don’t want to teach again if I can do anything else. My whole thoughts [sic] seem to be writing something whether it turns out worthwhile or not.”4

Earlier that same year, her play, “Black Magic,” a revised version for which she had won a prize while in North Carolina, was published in Yearbook of Short Plays, edited by Claude Merton Wise.

Duncan wrote at least two other plays, “The Witch Woman” and “Hard Times,” hoping they would be included in another collection that Wise planned but never completed “on account of depression [sic],” according to the playwright.

In 1932, at the age of thirty, she married a Mr. Brown, whom she described as “an adorable husband” and “interested” in her work as a writer. Thelma Duncan Brown, as she referred to herself from that point, lived with her husband in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she worked on a novel, Ham’s Children. That year, the playwright had some success as a short story writer, with two of her works being published in Bronsman.

Other Stage Works

“Drifter: One-Act Play of Lower Negro Life” (undated mauscript)

“Jinda” (undated manuscript)

“Payment” (undated manuscript)

“The Scarlet Shawl” (c. 1920)


1 Helen Webb’s “Genefrede,” a one-act tragic play about the execution of the fiancé of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s daughter on her father’s command, written while a student of Thomas Montgomery Gregory, won a Howard University prize and was published in Negro History in Thirteen Plays (1935), edited by Willis Richardson and May Miller. The Howard Players produced the work in 1922.

2 De Reath Irene (Beausey) Byrd’s “The Yellow Tree,” a one-act play about superstition and ambition, was adapted for the stage from the writer’s short story of the title, which was produced by the Howard Players and published in Crisis magazine in 1922.

3 Core CollectionPlays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro. Willis Richardson, editor. Washington, DC: Associated Pubs., 1930.

4 Letter from Duncan to Gregory, dated March 26, 1931 in Thomas Gregory Collection at Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC.

Contributed by Kyleelise Holmes

Titles marked Core Collection are included in the Core Collection of Harlem Renaissance Books at the Libraries.

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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003