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 Theater, 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.
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.
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,” according to the playwright.