Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

She's Fordham's Black Nun Who Knows Show Business: Minority Affairs Leader Sees Jesus as Part Actor. (Nation)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

She's Fordham's Black Nun Who Knows Show Business: Minority Affairs Leader Sees Jesus as Part Actor. (Nation)

Article excerpt

Sixty-some years ago Francesca Thompson's papa taught her that if some people might think her inferior, it was only a manifestation of their ignorance. The Franciscan sister, now 70, never forgot his words.

Although she's heard horror stories from other black nuns about racism and about harassment inside religious orders, the story of discrimination has not been her story.

When she entered the asters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Ind., 50 years ago, "I honestly thought that the sisters of my community sat up all night clapping their hands when they heard I was joining them."

During an interview at Fordham University here, she recalled her young self as being, "so vain and arrogant, it was nearly impossible for my novice mistress to smack some humility into me." Thompson directs the Office for Minority Affairs at Fordham.

Few other nuns can brag about being a longtime member of Broadway's prestigious Tony Board, of having been drama coach to actresses Gilda Radner and Christine Lahti, or of being a personal friend to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Theater in her blood

Her actor parents, Edward Thompson and Evelyn Preer, were so fair that white producers made them wear blackface when they acted. The pair met while working with the Lafayette Players, the longest-running stock company in U.S. theater history (1915-32). Based in Harlem's Lafayette Theater, the 250-member troupe toured in five companies.

Her mother was in Los Angeles when she gave birth to her only daughter on April 29, 1932. She died seven months later at 35. Thompson grew up in Indianapolis, raised by her father and grandmother, Susan Knox. Her lower middle-class home was far from ordinary, however.

Actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson, actress Ruby Dee and musician Eubie Blake, all friends of her father, visited. So did city politicians, clergymen, judges--even Indiana's gubernatorial candidates came to consult with her grandma, a Democratic ward captain.

"I wake up on election morning and feel joy and excitement the way other nuns feel on Christmas and Easter," Thompson said. "I'm no Dan Berrigan, but religious life doesn't demand I give up my political stands.'

Her gravest sin, she confessed, had been voting for Republican Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential race of 1956. "because Democrat Adlai Stevenson was divorced." The worst part was having her grandmother find out. "It never happened again."

She recalled taking her grandma to vote for Jimmy Carter when she was nearly 100. It was Susan Knox's last outing.

At the time Thompson had already been a Franciscan 25 years and was teaching theater arts and English at the order's Marian College in Indianapolis. She arrived at Marian in 1966, where she taught--with a break to earn her doctorate--until 1982, when she came to Fordham.

The history of the Lafayette Players was the subject of her doctoral dissertation in speech and drama at the University of Michigan, where she coached Radner, Lahti and several other budding actors. When it was suggested in 1969 that she research her parents' theatrical troupe, Thompson had no idea how she would uncover material or even learn if any of the players were still alive.

But she did "what nuns are good at," she said, and sent 97 begging letters to editors of black newspapers asking them to publish a free ad requesting information, clippings and old playbills about the troupe. She promised the editors "black power in heaven." The ads netted contact with three company members, including the founder.

Thompson's doctorate helped her become chairperson of Marian College's drama/speech department. Thompson taught about life, morality and value in works by American and international playwrights, white and black poets and novelists. The nun's study of many of the works of Eugene O'Neill delves into the dramatist's tempestuous relationship with Catholicism. …

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