Sunday, August 1, 2021

When Grinnell College Had a Black Playwright In Residence

Grinnell College is lucky to count Hallie Flanagan (1889-1969), Gary Cooper (1901-1961), and Peter Coyote (1941- ) among its alumni who have been active and successful in theater. Arthur Clifton Lamb did not achieve the same fame as these three, but his African American heritage propelled him along a different and no less important arc, dramatizing Black lives. Lamb graduated from Grinnell College, and took a master's in dramatics from the University of Iowa. He then taught at a series of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, ending his university career by teaching 25 years at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Along the way he sometimes took to the boards himself, but concentrated his energies on writing plays intended to bring the experiences of African Americans to theater audiences.

Today's post examines Lamb's life and his connections to Grinnell.

Norfolk New Journal & Guide, August 23, 1941


Arthur Clifton Lamb (1909-1988) was the fifth child born to Minnie (1879-1935) and Jacob Lamb (1876-1943) in Muscatine, Iowa, where Clifton, as he then liked to be called, attended the public schools.  Adjacent to the Mississippi River, Muscatine was closely tethered to the river. In the nineteenth century the Mississippi brought into town large numbers of African Americans who fled the slave-owning southern states by following the river north. The river also deeply affected the city's economy: the bend in the river at Muscatine deposited large numbers of mussel shells, which then brought to town button manufacturers who turned the shells into stylish buttons. Jacob Lamb, Clifton Lamb's father, was one of many African American button-cutters in turn-of-the-century Muscatine.

At the time of the 1925 Iowa census, Jacob Lamb and his entire family were settled in their Muscatine home at 518 Miles Avenue, living next door to Minnie Lamb's parents and not far from the river. "A. Clifton Lamb," as the 1926 Muscatine High School yearbook calls him, was approaching the end of his high school education, playing football, running track, and participating in "Declam" and the Athletic Scholarship Society. A photograph of the school's letter club shows that Lamb was the sole African American, a circumstance that prepared him for Grinnell College where he enrolled in the fall of 1927.

Photograph of the Letter Club, 1926 Muscatine High SchoolYearbook

At Grinnell Lamb lived in Clark Hall, where he was the only African American. He was similarly alone when, newly enrolled at the college, he was named one of five new members inducted into the Cosmopolitan Club (Scarlet and Black,  September 21, 1927). Indeed, he was inevitably the lone Black at Grinnell, wherever he went on campus.

Photograph of residents of Clark Hall; Lamb in middle of back row
(1931 Cyclone)

The student newspaper did not find much reason to print Lamb's name for the next eighteen months, but in February 1929 it carried word that Lamb would address the Cosmopolitan Club on "Solving the Negro Problem." Club members heard the young man say that "Race prejudice is barbarous and dangerous to a free and stable government," a comment that is no less true today than it was when Lamb articulated this proposition ninety years ago. But the college sophomore was not prepared to tell his white audience that the problem began and ended with white people.

We negroes are a sensitive and emotional people; we get incensed when there is no real cause for it. For instance, many negroes resent being called Afro-Americans. We have the same language, customs, and conscious history that the whites have, and we have shown our patriotism by sacrificing our blood in war and by contributing to the art and literature of America. Our negro spirituals are the only real folk songs that American has. We are not just Afro-Americans, but real Americans (ibid., February 27, 1929).

These thoughts led Lamb to encourage Blacks to be less sensitive, but he did not mean to overlook white stereotypes of African Americans. "...You [whites] should understand," he continued, "that we're not all chicken-thieves, crap-shooters and watermelon stealers. We have our own aims and dreams" (ibid.). Whether the Cosmopolitan Club members had heard these words previously the newspaper did not say, nor did it report how Lamb's talk was received, but the event reveals that young Clifton Lamb was thinking about race as he walked the halls of his overwhelmingly white college in the late 1920s.

Advertisement from the Scarlet and Black, April 23, 1930

In his junior year, Lamb began to write plays, the art that he would take from Grinnell into the future. In the spring of 1930 his first play, "The Faith Cure Man," was performed in the ARH auditorium (ibid., March 22, 1930). According to a newspaper report, "the play depicts Negro life as it is influenced by spiritualism, and the plot is the conflict between old and new racial beliefs" (ibid., April 16, 1930).

Photo Still from 1930 Production of "The Faith Cure Man," 1932 Cyclone, p. 96

Lamb's play was a candidate for the Steiner Prize, but did not win; student judges deemed a competitor, "The Scoop," to have a better, more complicated plot than "Faith Cure Man." All the same, the student newspaper thought that Lamb's play "was the most impressive...from an emotional standpoint...The scene and the individual characters were real enough to produce a vivid emotional effect on the audience" (Scarlet and Black, April 30, 1930). More striking in retrospect is the fact that four white students—Margaret Napier '30; Myrna Adams '31; Russell Peterson '30; and William Schmaedecke '32—played the parts of African Americans. Given the scarcity of African American students at Grinnell, the roles could not have been filled in any other way, but casting white actors in plays about African Americans complicated Lamb's productions until he worked at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Photo Still from "Emperor Jones," 1931 Cyclone, p. 92

Lamb not only wrote plays; he also acted in them, including playing the lead in Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones," which was performed on the Grinnell campus in December 1929 and re-staged for the 1930 Commencement. A student critic, writing in the Scarlet and Black, praised Lamb's acting and "artistic intensity." "The awful sincerity with which Mr. Lamb endured and fell victim to the fears of the forest must not have been easy to experience...and was not easily shaken off by the spectator..." (June 7, 1930).

But Lamb continued to focus his attention upon playwriting. In the spring of his senior year the drama department staged "Reachin' for the Sun," which the student newspaper called "a serious drama" (ibid., March 14, 1931). Because the play presented characters of a black minstrel group, white actors again assumed black identities on stage. At the 1931 commencement several student-written plays, including Lamb's "The Faith Cure Man," were staged as part of the celebration (ibid., May 27, 1931; Chicago Defender, June 20, 1931). The 1933 commencement week saw Lamb take the role of Cotton Lips in his  "Shades of Cotton Lips," in which "a Negro playwright...wishes to get away from the ordinary type of show featuring colored actors" (Scarlet and Black, May 6, 1933). These plays confirm that, even within the context of an otherwise white college community, Lamb wrestled with questions of African American identity, perhaps especially his own.

Advertisement for 1933 Commencement Plays at Grinnell College
(Scarlet and Black, May 13, 1933)

Although Lamb officially graduated in 1931, he was still on campus the following year; it may be that he had taken a break from college at some point, because his photograph appears with the graduating seniors in both the 1931 and 1932 Cyclones. 

Arthur Clifton Lamb, 1932 Cyclone, p. 27

In any case, his plays continued to attract attention, and not only in Grinnell.  At Christmas 1932 the Bethel Players, "a permanent and distinct unit of the [Bethel] A. M. E. church" in Muscatine, premiered Lamb's "The Two Gifts,  A Christmas Play for Negroes" (Muscatine Journal and News, December 21, 1932). Back in Grinnell the following spring, students (among them, Lamb in the role of Melchior) were rehearsing the same play to be performed in Mason City for the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs (Scarlet and Black, April 22, 1933). A year later the college's drama department announced its intention of staging another Lamb play, "She Dyed for a Prince," but, for reasons not explained, the Lamb play was pulled, replaced by a two-act comedy from Philip Moeller (ibid., February 3, 1934). A few months later, however, Lamb's most recent play was back on the boards (ibid., April 25, 1934).

In the summer of 1934 Lamb found himself in New York where he obtained a small part in "Dance with Your Gods," a Kenneth Perkins play set in Louisiana (ibid., September 26, 1934). After the play closed, Lamb returned to Muscatine where he wrote to Grinnell's Sara Sherman Pryor about her plans to publish some Grinnell student-authored plays.

I do know that I will never feel as much at home as I felt in New York. Broadway is not prejudiced against the Negro actor; it is willing to give him a decent break. The trouble is that there are too few good Negro plays. I think, for the time being, it is better for me to concentrate on my writing. With the few contacts I have made, I am confident that if I can produce something worthwhile, I can find a producer (ibid., December 8, 1934).

Winter 1935 Lamb returned to Grinnell where he was "working on a long play for Negro characters." He also took part in a playwriting class at Grinnell, but whether he was volunteering or hired I could not learn (ibid., February 20, 1935). While in Grinnell, Lamb joined the cast of Robert Irwin's "May-Basket," which the newspaper described as "a pleasant comedy about a negro communist who has been taken up by a couple of college students" (ibid., May 4, 1935). A few days later the annual student art exhibit included a series of "oil portraits of Clifton Lamb '32, negro playwright and actor, dressed as the leading character of his original one-act play, 'Cotton Lips'" (ibid., May 22, 1935).

Lamb costumed as Cotton Lips, 1934 Cyclone

Lamb's career received a boost when the Grinnell College Department of Drama published a collection of student-written plays, among them Lamb's "Two Gifts." The newspaper observed that the college's drama department would earn ten percent on all copies sold; the authors were also slated to receive royalties, although they must have been even more excited with the publicity that publication of their works brought (ibid., March 6, 1935; ibid., September 25, 1935; Norfolk New Journal and Guide, November 16, 1935).

Scarlet and Black, September 25, 1935

Soon after this Lamb took a position at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. University catalogs indicate that Lamb held the position of Instructor in Dramatics only for the academic year 1935-36 (1935-36 Shaw University Bulletin, p. 9). It seems likely that while at Shaw Lamb met Ann Louise Parham (1911-1991), then a student at Shaw and a pastor's daughter from Richmond, Virginia. The couple married June 12, 1937, by which time Lamb was teaching remedial English in New York City where the wedding was held (Muscatine Journal and News, July 29, 1937; Afro-American, 7 August 1937). 

Photograph from the April, 1940 Production of "Beebee" at University of Iowa
(Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs, 1866-2000, University of Iowa Digital Library:

That autumn Lamb took what was evidently a temporary appointment at Prairie View State College (today's Prairie View A&M University), because soon he was back in Iowa, enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Iowa. The three-act play he wrote for his master's degree, "Beebee" (later retitled "Black Woman in White"), was staged in April 1940 at Macbride Auditorium on the university campus. A newspaper report called the play a "dramatic struggle of a Negro lady doctor for a hospital for her people, and is set in Texas where Lamb is regularly employed as head of the department of dramatics at Prairie View State College" (Muscatine Journal and News, April 26, 1940). The same play, under the title, "Black Woman in White," had successful productions later at Howard University and the following year in Harlem by the Rose McClendon Players (Norfolk New Journal and Guide, August 23, 1941; New Amsterdam Star-News, August 23, 1941), whose performance earned raves (New York Age, August 23, 1941).

1940-41 Catalog of Prairie View State College, p. 15

According to the Muscatine newspaper, in 1940 Lamb had been at Iowa for a year and a half, but in that interval he seems to have been in Prairie View, Texas fairly often. Prairie View State University documents identify Lamb as a faculty member in 1937, and then again beginning in 1940. However, a 1939 article in the Prairie View State College newspaper, reporting on the staging of Lamb's play, "God's Great Acres," described Lamb as "head of the drama department at Prairie View" (The Panther, April 7, 1939), so he evidently remained formally affiliated with Prairie View then. 

Lamb the playwright also nursed an affection for poetry, although I found only a few of his poems published. In 1940, however, with talk of war everywhere, he published in the Pittsburgh Courier a three-stanza poem affirming his patriotism, and, by extension, the patriotism of all African Americans.

Listen, America! Mine was the first blood spilled in the Revolution. My brown hands helped rivet the nation together. I was with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. I, too, bore aloft the falling torch of the Flanders dead, And MY youth "where poppies blow." I have proved my right to sing full-voiced "My country 'tis of thee"... (Pittsburgh Courier, December 21, 1940).

The poem caught the eye of Langston Hughes, who sent Lamb an autographed copy of "America's Young Black Joe," a song whose lyrics Hughes had written on a similar theme (Pittsburgh Courier, January 18, 1941).

A 1942 article in the Chicago Defender tagged Lamb as "newly appointed chairman of the department of speech and dramatics" at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina (December 12, 1942). University catalogs confirm that Lamb remained on the faculty there through 1946 (1944-1946 Catalogs of Johnson C. Smith University), when he accepted appointment at Morgan State College (now Morgan State University).


At Morgan State Lamb continued his work with drama, but also developed interests in radio and television. In 1948 Lamb returned to New York City to study for and obtain a Certificate in Television and Radio from New York University (Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., comp., Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Scripts [NY: Greenwood Press, 1990], p. 123). Almost immediately thereafter, Lamb, back in Baltimore, helped found Morgan State's own radio station (WEAA), and began producing radio and television shows for the university (Baltimore Sun, March 27, 1988).  A 1960-61 Directory of College Courses in Radio and Television (ed. Pat Beall Hamill) reported that Lamb taught "Radio broadcasting; radio announcing; advanced radio direction and programming," a significant stretch of his earlier focus on acting and playwriting.

In addition, Lamb continued to reflect upon the difficulties confronting Black playwrights. Spring 1948 he took part in a Fine Arts Festival at Morgan State, delivering a lecture on "The Negro Playwright" (Baltimore Sun, May 13, 1948). He returned to this theme several times, including a letter to the editor of the New York TImes (February 13, 1955) and a lecture he gave at Goucher College in 1968 (Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1968).

Daily Iowan, November 19, 1952

Twenty years after his Grinnell graduation, Lamb returned to Iowa to pursue a doctorate at the University of Iowa while on leave from Morgan State (Daily Iowan, November 15, 1952). However, what began triumphantly ended in a personal defeat. Early in his second tenure at Iowa City, the University's Experimental Theater staged Lamb's "Roughshod Up the Mountain," which newspapers described as the "first all Negro university theater production in several years" (Daily Iowan, November 19, 1952; Des Moines Register, November 23, 1952). Despite the inexperience of the cast—which included "a Des Moines waiter, two Iowa City housewives [one of whom was Helen Renfrow Lemme, a Grinnell High School graduate], a shoe repairman, and six SUI students," only Lamb, who played the part of Preston Spears, a preacher, had any acting experience—the play enjoyed a generally favorable reception (Daily Iowan, November 26, 1952).

From this exciting success, Lamb's career took a heartbreaking crash: shortly after staging "Roughshod Up the Mountain," Lamb was expelled from the University graduate program, but no explanation was made public. In a 2016 book, however, Lena M. Hill argued that Lamb was a victim of white mistrust of "relationships across racial lines," a reflection of the continuing racism at the University. "Notwithstanding Lamb's promising start [at Iowa]," she writes, 

when a night watchman discovered him and a white female student in a compromising situation in the basement of the drama building, his doctoral studies came to an unceremonious end...As soon as the news of Lamb's interracial romantic liaison spread, [E. C.] Mabie [1892-1956], Lamb's adviser] was forced to take action to protect the integrity of the department. Thus, Lamb was not allowed to complete his doctoral work at Iowa (Invisible Hawkeyes at the University of Iowa, eds. Lena M. Hill and Michael D. Hill [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016], pp. 97-98).

I found no account of how Lamb absorbed this humiliating end to his Iowa studies, nor did I learn how Louise Lamb or the couple's two children, Arthur Clifton Lamb, Jr. (1939- ) and Carroll G. Lamb (1942- ), processed the news. But the fact that the encounter was "interracial" reminds us how all along Lamb had been navigating African American experience with white casts and white audiences. White actors might easily don blackface to act their parts, but doing so did not liberate them or their superiors from racial bias.

Morgan State chapter of Alpha Psi Omega Honorary Dramatics Society
Arthur Clifton Lamb, back row, 2nd from left
1955 Promethean Yearbook, p. 80

By 1955 Lamb was back at Morgan State, advising the local chapter of the national honorary Dramatics Society (Alpha Psi Omega) and staging "Roughshod Up the Mountain." He remained a vital part of the dramatics program at Morgan State, adding courses in radio and television work. By the time he retired in the 1970s, Lamb bequeathed a vital legacy of African American dramatics to Morgan State and its students. It is a shame to realize that Lamb did not live long enough to see his name, along with that of his Morgan State colleague, Waters E. Turpin (1910-1968), etched onto the face of the university's new theater in 2001. Unfortunately, many of the racial issues with which Lamb and his dramas had wrestled remained to trouble new generations. But his playwriting, begun on the campus of an all-white Midwestern college, had brought generations of African Americans—especially within the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities—into closer touch with their American experience.

A Beginning List of Arthur Clifton Lamb Plays and Performances

Information borrowed from Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., ed., Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Scripts (NY: Greenwood Press, 1990). Additional sources indicated in the text.

"The Faith Cure Man" (1930) © July 30, 1930; D unpub. 6006; Arthur Clifton Lamb, 518 Miles Ave., Muscatine, IA  4278.  One-act play produced on Grinnell College campus March 22, 1930, and again at commencement week 1931 and 1933.

"Reachin' for the Sun" (1930). One-act play produced on Grinnell College campus, March 1931.

"She Dyed for a Prince" (1930). One-act play produced on Grinnell College campus,  April 1934.

"Shades of Cotton Lips" (1931). First produced at Grinnell College, May 18, 1933 and again June 3, 1933; later at North Carolina A. & T. College, Greensboro, NC and at The New School for Social Research, New York.

"The Two Gifts (A Christmas Play for Negroes)" (1935) © July 1, 1934; D 31236; Dept of Drama, Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA 5644. Produced by the Maclean College Players, Chicago, December 6, 1935; published in Grinnell Plays (Chicago, 1935).

"God's Great Acres" Produced at Prairie View State College, April 1939; "portrays the social problem of farm mechanization and its effects upon sharecroppers...stirring drama...of humor, pathos, song...true to life characterization of the southern sharecroppers" (Prairie View Panther, April 7, 1939); awarded Sergel Prize in Regional Playwriting from University of Chicago in 1939 (Helen Keyssar-Franke, "Afro-American Drama and its Criticism," Bulletin of New York Public Library, vol. 78, n. 3, p. 331).

"Black Woman in White" (formerly "Beebee)" (1940) © Dec. 16, 1940; D 72862; Arthur Clifton Lamb, Hempstead, TX 707.  First produced at University of Iowa, April 25, 1940; produced at Howard University (date unknown) and in Harlem by the Rose McClendon Players at Rose McClendon Workshop, New York, August 13, 1941.

"Millsboro Memorial" (1946) Produced at the Tenth Annual Conference of the Southern Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts, convened at Tennessee A. & I. State University, Nashville, TN, April 10, 1946

"Portrait of a Pioneer" (1949). Short radio play on the career of Ira Aldridge, the first Black Shakespearean and classical actor of the nineteenth century. Published in Negro History Bulletin, April 1949, pp. 162-64

"Roughshod Up the Mountain" (1953) © Arthur Clifton Lamb, May 13, 1953  DU34057.  Produced at Tennessee A. &  I. State University, Nashville, TN, June 25, 1956; presented as the American entry in the Annual International Festival, Sarah Bernhardt Theatre, Paris, June 1946; staged at University of Iowa Experimental Theater, November 21-22, 1952 (Daily Iowan, November 15, 1952; Muscatine Journal, November 15, 1952); produced Off-Broadway by Ira Aldridge Players of Morgan State College for a Producers' Showcase performance, November 22-25, 1956 (Los Angeles Sentinel, November 1, 1956); produced in Paris for 11th International Theater Festival, summer 1964 (Muscatine Journal, February 7, 1964).

"Mistake Into Miracle" (1961) 90-minute teleplay, adapted later into full-length play that dramatized the life of George Washington Carver (Baltimore Sun, March 27, 1988). Produced at Morgan State College, Baltimore, December 8, 1961.