It was quite predicable in writing an obituary on Sidney Poitier as we recently did that Abram Hill would get at least a mention since he played a crucial role in the great actor’s early years at the American Negro Theater. Like Frederick O’Neal, Hill was inextricably connected with creating the theater, and under his supervision a countless number of aspiring thespians learned the craft and went on to greater acclaim.
Abram, sometimes known as Ab Hill, was born on Jan. 20, 1910, in Atlanta and spent most of his early years there. He was seven when he first stepped on stage in a Morehouse College Theatre production. At the age of 13 his family moved to Harlem and he enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. City College was his next stop for two years before he moved on to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania from which he graduated with a B.A. in 1937. Even as a college student, Abram was industrious and was hired to teach drama with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). He also directed several plays at this program created to provide the unemployed with some form of financial assistance.
His stay at Lincoln was remarkable and he was soon an assistant in the school’s Theater Arts program. Lucrative, too, was his stint with the Federal Theater Project where among his duties was one as a script reader; the FTP soon gave him opportunity to write for the group, including “Stealing Lightning” and “Hell’s Half-Acre.” Success followed when his plays were produced by the Unity Players of the Bronx, all of which proved rewarding and helped him to receive the Theresa Helbrun Scholarship at the New School for Social Research where he studied under John Gassner and Erwin Piscator. He continued to be a reader of plays but found time to write his own productions—“Walk Hard,” “Liberty Deferred” and, the most popular of his creations, “On Strivers Row.”
In an interview conducted by Trymaine Lee of MSNBC with theater authority Voza Rivers, ANT and Abram were evoked. Lee: “So you actually had Mr. Hill there with you, helping to, like, shape this thing. What was it like, actually working with him?” Rivers: “Well, he gave notes and you listened. ‘I want to change this setting. I want to change the lighting. This is the kind of costume that I want the costume designer to dress people in.’” Lee: “What was his personality like, and his voice? How did he carry himself?” Rivers: “Every time I was in his presence, I always thought that I was around a professor at a college, because that’s the kind of stature that he held. He was a very conservative guy, always in a suit. Never saw him without his suit and tie on.” Lee: “Never. Never once.” Rivers: “He was dapper. He held up that tradition of what esteemed Black men during that period would look like. Everything about him was very serious.
“Not only did Abram Hill talk about the fundamentals of theater, he also talked about the responsibility of being advocates for our culture, to also articulate and advance the Black movement in arts and culture and in civil rights.” Lee: “Mr. Rivers decided to follow the example set by Abram Hill.” Rivers: “The first thing that I knew was I had to have a commitment to the community. Most of my work was done, and there was no admission at all.”
Abram was among a coterie of artists who found themselves without meaningful employment after the government’s relief program closed down. He soon was working with Frederick O’Neal at the American Negro Theater that was based at the Schomburg Center. Not only was it established to help the beleaguered theatrical workers but it was a place where a fine competitive spirit was established, thereby allowing those involved to refine their skills. This was certainly a vital benefit for Poitier, his close friend and often rival for parts, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. At ANT budding young actors, directors, and producers had a path that otherwise existed in the New York world of drama. ANT’s motto was: “to break down the barriers of Black participation in the Theater; to portray Negro life as they honestly saw it; [and] to fill the gap of a Black Theater which did not exist.”
At the very start of this pursuit, ANT garnered considerable praise, particularly in Black theater. They produced more than 20 plays from 1940 to 1950, the bulk of them original. Impressive numbers also occurred for those interested in attending one of the shows, and it was cited that more than 50,000 people were in the audience for the productions. Abram often stated that ANT: “…Sent a wagon up and down the streets of Harlem with somebody beating a drum…We passed out handbills on the street corners. And we had a family night. We let in five members of the family for a dollar.” It was very similar to the free plates, bowls, and kitchen items given on special occasions by the movie houses in the ’40s and ’50s to expand the audience.
By the late 1940s Abram ended his affiliation with ANT and began working as a director with the Lincoln University Players as well as teaching in the New York public school system. He was active in this behalf when he died October 13, 1986. He and ANT were recalled in 2015 when the Schomburg Center launched an exhibit entitled, “The 75th Anniversary of the American Negro Theater.”