Obituary: Doris Abramson, professor emeritus of Theater known for pioneering study of black playwrights

Doris E. Abramson, 82, of New Salem, professor emeritus of Theater and a pioneering scholar of black theater, died at home Jan. 7 after a brief period of failing health.

During more than 31 years on the faculty, Abramson taught theater history and oral interpretation of literature as a member of the English, Speech and Theater departments.

Born in Amherst, she had lifelong ties to the campus — her parents both worked at Massachusetts Agricultural College — her mother in the Treasurer’s Office and her father, a Swedish immigrant, was the first janitor in Memorial Hall.

By the time she graduated from high school, Mass Aggie had become Massachusetts State College and Abramson enrolled in 1942, but soon dropped out and went to work at a defense plant on Long Island. In 1945, she returned to Amherst and began her studies anew. Although an English major, she discovered theater and played a number of roles in productions on campus and at Amherst College. She played Portia in a production of “Julius Caesar” that traveled to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

“Theater was terribly exciting and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said in a 1987 article in Contact magazine. “I finished up and graduated, and then I went all the way across the river to Smith to work on a master’s degree in theater. I thought I wanted to be an actress. But when I got over to Smith I got more and more interested in directing.”

At Smith, she was greatly influenced by the department chair, Hallie Flanagan, who had served as the national director of the Federal Theater, a New Deal project that employed thousands of actors, stagehands, designers and other theater professionals during the Depression. Abramson credited Flanagan, who was keenly interested in socially relevant scripts, with nurturing her commitment to social awareness in theater.

After completing her M.A. in 1951, Abramson taught theater and speech for a year at Wheaton College, then returned to Amherst to teach in the University’s English Department. At the time, there was no theater department, but English faculty also taught speech. Eventually, a Speech Department was created and from that program, the Theater Department was established in 1976.

In 1959, she was awarded a Danforth Teacher Grant and began doctoral studies in theater at Columbia University. By the early 1960s, she had completed her course work and conceived the idea of writing a dissertation on black playwrights, a little-known topic in academic circles at the time.

In the Contact article, Abramson recalled meeting with her dissertation committee. “I said, ‘I would like to write about Negro playwrights.’ And one member of the committee actually said, ‘Are there any?’”

After winning the committee’s assent, Abramson forged ahead with her research, helped by her childhood friend Amy Goodwin, who had many contacts in New York’s black theater scene. Through Goodwin, she met actress Juanita Hall, who originated the role of Bloody Mary in “South Pacific.” Hall later introduced Abramson to Langston Hughes, who connected her with playwright Alice Childress. By 1967, Abramson completed her doctoral thesis and was awarded her Ph.D.

Abramson’s dissertation was the basis for her 1969 book, “Negro Playwrights in the American Theater, 1925-1959,” published by the Columbia University Press. The book helped establish Abramson as an authority on black dramatic literature at a time when academia was becoming more cognizant of African-American cultural contributions.

As a professor, she taught dramaturgy, stage speech for actors, performance of literature and courses on black theater. In 1978, she received the campus’ highest classroom instruction honor, the Distinguished Teaching Award. Among those she counted as her students were actors Richard Gere and Bill Pullman and playwright Connie Congdon.

Abramson also served as the drama editor of The Massachusetts Review and published articles on black theater in Educational Theatre Journal and other publications.

In addition to her teaching and scholarship, Abramson was a frequent director of plays on campus. Among the productions for which she is remembered are Arthur Miller’s “Memory of Two Mondays,” George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” Ionesco’s “Exit the King” and Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal.” She was also well known as a reader, on many public occasions, of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. A CD recording of Abramson reading the poet’s work is available at the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst.

Upon her retirement in 1987, Abramson was honored at a campus conference on black theater attended by Childress, James Baldwin, William Branch, Loften Mitchell and Louis Peterson.

In 1999, Abramson was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal at the Homecoming Festival, where she delivered the keynote address, “Places and Persons,” in which she called beloved teachers as well as her own first faculty office, “a kind of broom closet ... in the Old Chapel basement.”

For a number of years after her retirement, Abramson was co-owner with her partner of more than 40 years, Dorothy Johnson, of the Common Reader Bookshop in New Salem. The bookstore, known among other things for its collection of used and rare books by women writers, became a destination for book lovers from near and far.

Abramson also became a poet in her own right. She counted among her friends poets Anne Halley, Adrienne Rich, Michelle Cliff, Robert Francis, Joe Langland, Stan Koehler and many others. She published two collections of her own poetry, “Its Time” and “Time Will Tell.”

In addition to Dorothy Johnson, Abramson leaves her brother, Charles Abramson, and his wife, Mary, of Amherst; and their three children.

A memorial service is planned for the spring.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Gardner VNA, 34 Pearly Lane, Gardner, MA 01440, or to a local hospice organization, or to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society, 163 Montague Rd., Leverett 01054.