Dooley Wilson

Early life and career

(Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Arthur Wilson was born in Tyler, Texas, the youngest of five children. At age seven, the year of his father’s death, he began to make a living by performing in churches in Tyler. When he was eight years old he was making $18 a week, singing and playing in tent shows. By 1908 he was in Chicago in the repertory company of the Pekin Theatre, the first legitimate Black theatre in the United States. By then he had earned the nickname “Dooley”, for his whiteface impersonation of an Irishman singing a song called “Mr. Dooley“.


The Pekin Theater

“The Pekin Theater in Chicago, Illinois, was the first theater in the city, and one of the first in the nation, to feature Black performers. Iowa native Robert T. Motts, a professional gambler, turned his hotel/gambling saloon into the Pekin Theater. The theater was located at 27th and State Street on Chicago’s Near South Side. The Pekin, often called the “Temple of Music,” opened the first all-Black show ever produced in Chicago on June 18, 1905 to an estimated crowd of 400 patrons.
Founded during a time when all existing theaters were White-owned and managed, the Pekin had to overcome skeptics who questioned Black management capabilities and who expected Black theatrical performances to be confined to minstrelsy. According to Motts, the Pekin was in response to the 1901 call of Black businessmen for the creation of “a colored theater in Chicago, controlled by colored people, and catering only to colored patronage.”
At first the theater was modeled as a cabaret but underwent a major transformation in early 1906. The New Pekin emerging as a first class bijou theater. With the creation of the Pekin Stock Company shortly thereafter, it also turned from evenings of vaudeville acts to full-length musical comedies. To celebrate the transformation the theater put on a performance of The Man from Bam which starred actor Sherman H. Dudley. Over its brief history the Theater showcased the talents of J. Ed Green as director and playwright, musicians Will Marion Cook and Joe Jordan, and actors Harrison Stewart, Jerry Wills, Lawrence Chanault, and Abbie Mitchell. Despite its success in recruiting and developing Black theatrical talent, critics complained that the Pekin changed shows too frequently and charged excessive fees for admission.
In 1908 Motts, capitalizing on the success of the Pekin, opened a North Side Company at the Columbia Theater in order to capitalize on Chicago’s growing population and attract White audiences. Soon afterwards unfavorable reports began to circulate in the press about North Side Whites’ unhappiness with the new theater. Motts lost money which in turn affected the financial viability of the Pekin.
The Columbia Theater debacle marked the beginning of the Pekin’s demise. By 1911 the Pekin Theater closed six years after it opened because it could not compete with the vaudeville and motion picture theaters opening all around Chicago. The Pekin Theater was the first significant attempt to create a legitimate Black theater in Chicago. It provided African American theater artists a space to hone their theatrical skills and develop the emerging Black theatrical tradition.” – ©2021 . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

“In his book, The Pekin: The Rise and Fall of Chicago’s First Black-Owned Theater, historian Thomas Bauman reveals how Motts used his entrepreneurial acumen to create a successful Black-owned enterprise.
For example, Motts had a philosophy of hiring only African American staff, and heavily embraced multi-racial upper class audiences. In addition, his theater also served as a community center, social club, and fundraising instrument.
Sadly, the Pekin’s prestige and profitability faltered after Motts’ death in 1911 as his heirs lacked his savvy, and African American elites turned away from pure entertainment in favor of spiritual uplift.
But, the theater had already opened the door to a new dynamic of both intra- and inter-racial theater-going and showed the ways a success, like the Pekin, had a positive economic and social impact on the surrounding community.” – Copyright ©2020 Dante Lee International | All Rights Reserved


Conjur’ Man Dies

Dooley Wilson starring in the Federal Theatre Project production Conjur’ Man Dies (1936)

The Conjure Man Dies was one of the first detective novels written by an African American author, featuring only Black characters, published in 1932. Two years after the author died in 1934, it was adapted to a stage play by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen and produced under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project in Harlem


Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home

Dooley Wilson as Fat Joe in the Federal Theatre Project revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home, comprised in the production One-Act Plays of the Sea (1937)


Androcles and the Lion

Dooley Wilson as Androcles in the Federal Theatre Project production of Androcles and the Lion (1938)

Part of the emerging African American theatre, Wilson worked with the Anita Bush company in New York City in 1914 and with Charles Gilpin’s stock company at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1915.  He performed in James Reese Europe’s band, and after World War, he toured Europe with his own band, The Red Devils, throughout the 1920s.


The Show-Off

Dooley Wilson starring in the Federal Theatre Project production of The Show-Off (1937)



Founded in 1935, it was the first federally supported theatre in the United States. Its purpose was to create jobs for unemployed theatrical people during the Great Depression, and its director was the educator and playwright Hallie Flanagan.


“In 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project (FTP) as part of the New Deal economic recovery program. Negro units, also called The Negro Theatre Project (NTP), were set up in 23 cities throughout the United States. This short-lived (1935-1939) project provided much-needed employment and apprenticeships to hundreds of Black actors, directors, theatre technicians, and playwrights. It was a major boost for African American theatre during the Depression era.

These units were situated throughout the country in four geographical sectors. In the East, the most productive units were located in New York City, New York, Boston, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey. In the South, units were placed in Raleigh, North Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama. In the Midwest, they were situated in Chicago, Illinois, Peoria, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio. In the West, units were in Seattle, Washington, and Los Angeles, California.

The best-known and most active FTP was The New York Negro Unit (1935-1939). Located at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, it staged some 30 productions. Two White directors, John Houseman and Orson Wells headed it in 1935. Three Black directors, Edward Perry, Carlton Moss, and H. F. V. Edward replaced them in 1936. The unit’s most popular production was the Haitian, or “voodoo,” Macbeth (1935), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play set in the Caribbean, under the direction of Wells. Other productions included Frank Wilson’s folk drama Walk Together, Children (1936), which described the forced deportation of 100 African American children from the South to the North to work for menial wages. Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen’s The Conjur Man Dies (1936), a farcical mystery in three acts, dramatized Rudolph Fisher’s mystery-melodrama. Also in 1936, J. Augustus Smith and Peter Morrell co-authored Turpentine, a social drama in three acts and ten scenes that focused on the evils of the Southern labor camp system. George MacEntee’s The Case of Philip Lawrence (1937) was a courtroom melodrama. Haiti by William DuBois (not to be confused with W.E.B. DuBois), appeared in 1938 as a historical drama about the overthrow of a Haitian government. The Negro Youth Theatre, a popular subdivision of the New York Negro Unit, produced Conrad Seiler’s social drama  Sweet Land (January 1937), which toured the streets of New York with the production during the following summer.

The Newark Negro Unit, in combination with the white New Jersey unit, produced one of the most successful FTP productions by a Black author, The Trial of Dr. Beck. Hughes Allison’s play was a courtroom melodrama about color stratification among upwardly mobile Blacks. The Trial was produced at Union City and Newark, New Jersey in 1937 and then transferred to the Maxine Elliott Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for four weeks.

The Philadelphia Negro Unit produced Prelude in Swing, a 1939 musical documentary by Carlton Moss. The Boston Negro Unit was directed and run by Ralf Coleman, also a playwright and one of the leading performers. His brother Warren Coleman, and H. Jack Bates, the main resident playwright, assisted him. Broadway and film actor Frank Silvera was also a member and leading actor with this unit. Among the plays this unit produced (c. 1937-1938) were Bates’s Cinda, a Black version of Cinderella, Dear Morpheus, a fantasy of love and marriage, Streets of Gold, Black Acres, The Legend of Jo Emma, The Lost Disciple, and Coleman’s Swing Song. The Hartford Negro Unit produced Trilogy in Black by Ward Courtney in 1937. The Raleigh Negro Unit produced Heaven Bound, a Black morality play adapted by Laura Ward in 1936.

Shirley Graham (later Mrs. W.E.B. DuBois) headed The Chicago Negro Unit from 1936 to 1939. This unit rivaled the New York unit in the originality, popularity, and variety of its offerings. The Chicago unit’s most acclaimed production The Swing Mikado (1938), was a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, which was a hit both in Chicago and New York City. Other productions by this unit included Lew Payton’s Did Adam Sin? (1936), Little Black Sambo (1937), a children’s operetta, and Theodore Ward’s drama on the Depression, Big White Fog (1938).

In the Far West, The Seattle Negro Unit’s (1936-1939) play production over four seasons (1936-1939) was boosted greatly by the presence of playwright-in-resident Theodore Browne. The unit staged four of his plays, including Lysistrata, an African American adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy, and Natural Man, a dramatization of the John Henry legend. Go Down Moses was a play about Harriet Tubman and her involvement in the Underground Railroad. Swing, Gates, Swing was a musical revue. The Los Angeles Negro Unit produced two plays by Black playwrights. John Henry by Frank B. Wells in 1936, about the legendary railroad worker, and Run Little Chillun’! in 1938-1939), a revival of Hall Johnson’s folk drama that originally appeared on Broadway in 1933.”



Bloomer Girl

Margaret Douglass, Dooley Wilson, and Joan McCracken in the Broadway musical Bloomer Girl (1944)

The original Broadway production opened at the Shubert Theatre on October 5, 1944, directed by William Schorr and produced by John C. Wilson in association with Nat Goldstone. The production’s scenic designer and lighting designer was Lemuel Ayers. Agnes de Mille was the choreographer, and her contributions included a Civil War ballet. The production starred Celeste Holm as Evelina, David Brooks as Jeff Calhoun, Dooley Wilson as the slave Pompey, and Joan McCracken in the featured dancing role as Daisy. While successful—it closed on April 27, 1946 after 657 performances on Broadway—it has seldom been revived, in part because the costumes are quite complicated.

Bloomer Girl is an unlikely Civil War musical about a daughter of a manufacturer of hoop skirts (Celeste Holm) who becomes an abolitionist whose suitor is a slaveowner. she tests her lover by asking him to set his personal slave, Pompey, free. 
 City Center Encores! staged a concert version in 2001.

A television version of the musical was shown in 1956.