Robert Adams (actor)

Robert Adams (1906 – 1965) was a British Guyanese actor of stage and screen. He was the founder and director of the Negro Repertory Arts Theatre, one of the first professional black theatre companies in Britain, and became Britain's first black television actor when he appeared in Theatre Parade: Scenes From Hassan on BBC TV in 1937. He was also the first Black actor to play a Shakespearian role on television (the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice), in 1947.[1]

Robert Adams
Died1965 (aged 5859)
Georgetown, British Guiana
Years active1935–60


Early years

(Wilfred) Robert Adams,[2] the son of a boat builder, was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana). In 1920, we won a scholarship to Jamaica's Mico Teachers' College, from where he graduated with honours. He worked as a teacher in British Guiana, while producing and acting in amateur stage productions.[3] He went to England in the 1920s to try to make it as a professional actor. In London, he worked as a labourer and as a wrestler, known as "The Black Eagle", becoming heavyweight champion of the British Empire.[2][4] In 1931, he was a founding member of Harold Moody's League of Coloured Peoples.[3]

Acting career

Adams began appearing as a film extra in 1934, and had roles in films including Midshipman Easy (1935), Song of Freedom in 1936 – together with Paul Robeson – and King Solomon's Mines (1937). He also featured in Old Bones of the River (1938), worked as Robeson's stunt double in 1940's The Proud Valley, was in a 1941 Colonial Film Unit production entitled An African in London, and played the role of a Nubian slave in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).[3] The following year, when Adams starred in Men of Two Worlds, it was hailed by critics as a "ground-breaking film".[3]

On the stage, Adams' first role was in 1935 at the Embassy Theatre in Stevedore, in which Robeson played the hero and which was enthusiastically reviewed by Nancy Cunard in The Crisis: "This production of Stevedore has brought to light a fine new personality, on the stage for the first time: Robert Adams, Negro of British Guiana, well known otherwise as "'Black Eagle,' wrestler. He plays 'Blacksnake.' An extraordinarily fine, a natural-born actor, who should without fail find other good parts and work on the screen as well, for even a merely intelligent producer – but I wish him the best, Sergei Eisenstein."[4] Another early role was as Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the 1936 play Toussaint L'Ouverture by C. L. R. James, again alongside Robeson and also other notable actors including Orlando Martins and Harry Andrews. Adams went on to take the lead in a television adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. The role of Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter who becomes the ruler of a Caribbean island, had already been played by Robeson on stage and screen. The BBC's version was transmitted live from Alexandra Palace on 11 May 1938,[5][6] and Adams became the first black actor to play a leading dramatic role on British television; another BBC appearance that year was in W. B. Yeats' Deirdre.[1] Adams also appeared in Geoffrey Trease's Colony (1939), which was about the exploitation of sugar workers in a Caribbean island.[7]

After Robeson returned to the United States at the outbreak of the Second World War, Adams became Britain's leading black actor, and would continue acting on television in the 1940s and 1950s. In the late 1940s, he founded the Negro Repertory Arts Theatre, whose productions included O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings, at Colchester in 1944. He also appeared in the Unity Theatre's 1946 production of the play and a BBC television production in 1946.[6] In 1948 he played Bigger Thomas in the play based on Richard Wright's novel Native Son, staged at the Bolton's Theatre Club.[3]

Adams subsequently studied law and took a break from acting,[3] returning to London's West End stage in 1958 in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, and appearing on television in Green Pastures (1958) and Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl in a 1960 ITV production.[3] He eventually returned to British Guiana, where he died in 1965.[8]


Year Title Role Notes
1935Sanders of the RiverMinor RoleUncredited
1935Midshipman EasyMesty
1936Song of FreedomMonty
1937King Solomon's MinesTwala
1938Old Bones of the RiverBosambo
1944It Happened One SundayGorilla JimUncredited
1944DreamingNubian Slave
1945Caesar and CleopatraNubian Slave
1946Men of Two WorldsKisenga
1951Old Mother Riley's Jungle TreasureChief 'Stinker'
1951Follow the SunGolf ProUncredited
1959SapphireHorace Big Cigar
1960The CriminalJudas(final film role)


  1. Sarita Malik, Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television, Sage, 2002; "The early phase of drama with a black presence", p. 135, and note 2.
  2. "William Roberts: Sam Rabin versus Black Eagle", The William Roberts Society.
  3. Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television, London: Continuum, 2001; chapter 7, "Robert Adams and Orlando Martins: Men of Two Worlds", pp. 72–6.
  4. Nancy Cunard, "Stevedore in London", The Crisis, August 1935.
  5. Stephen Bourne (12 December 2006). "A Sort of Magic: The Black Presence On Pre-War British Television". 24 Hour Museum. Retrieved 16 February 2009.
  6. "Men of Two Worlds (1946)", BFI Screenonline.
  7. Susan Croft (3 October 2008). "Culture and Festivals: Black Theatre in Britain to 1945". Moving Here.
  8. "Black & Asian Performance in Britain 1940–1969", V & A.
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