The history of African-American theater and performance has been tied to the social and cultural circumstances of African-American existence. Because of the particular historical conditions of African-American life, the representation of African Americans on stage has contained profound political, social, and cultural meanings, impacts, and effects.
On August 1, 1821, William Brown opened the African Grove Theatre at 51 Mercer Street in New York City. While free Africans and African Americans in New York flocked to his tea-garden theater, Brown found himself in conflict with white authorities, most particularly with Mordecai Manuel Noah, the sheriff of New York City. Noah repeatedly closed productions, made arrests, and even removed actors from the stage of the African Grove Theatre, stating that the theater constituted a public threat. On June 20, 1823, Brown presented his own work The Drama of King Shotoway, a no-longer-extant work that commented on Brown’s own oppression and imagined black rebellion by recounting the 1795 Garifuna Insurrection against the British on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. After the production, the theater closed for good, and Brown disappeared from the public record. Some members of the company went on to found other groups. Two of the more significant were actors James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge. With the African Company, Hewlett undertook key Shakespearean roles, including Richard III. Aldridge, sensing the racism present in American theater, went on to a successful career in Europe, where he acted for more than 30 years, presenting command performances before the crowned heads of Europe.
Among the most durable theatrical images of blackness that have profoundly influenced American racial interactions is that of the “happy-go-lucky darky” in blackface that came onto the American stage during the period of slavery but reverberated through American culture for decades. Through plays such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851), as well as through performances on the minstrel stage, this stereotype became ingrained in the American consciousness. As a consequence, black playwrights and theater practitioners have had to confront and contest this historically negative image of blackness perpetuated by the dominant culture. In so doing, black playwrights and performers have had to create alternative images. Black theater practitioners in the late 1800s and early 1900s, like their white counterparts, donned blackface makeup and performed characters that both reinforced and subverted the association of blackness with servility, buffoonery, and inferiority. The first play ever published by a black author in the United States, The Escape; or, A Leap to Freedom (1858) by William Wells Brown, confronts these negative stereotypes, most principally through a slave character, Cato, who seems to conform to them. Brown, himself an escaped slave, appeared frequently as an orator at abolitionist meetings, and he wrote The Escape not to be staged by a troupe of actors but to be read by himself, in lieu of an oratorical address, at these meetings. The play depicts a series of events on the fictitious Muddy Creek plantation, owned by a Dr. Gaines, that lead three of his slaves, Glen, Melinda, and Cato, as the title suggests, to escape.
The struggle against pejorative black stereotypes continued within the theatrical period after slavery as minstrelsy gave way to a period of black musicals. Through these new black musicals, black performers fought to make audiences aware of their creativity at a time when virtually all avenues of social or economic advancement were closed to African Americans. Nonetheless, demeaning representations of African Americans persisted in these revues with names such as Bert Williams and George Walker’s Two Real Coons (1896–99), In Dahomey (1902–05), and Bandana Land (1907–09). Black composer Bob Cole developed an important black musical, A Trip to Coontown (1898), starring Sissieretta Jones, better known as “Black Patti.” It was the first black musical that worked with a plot that carried from beginning to end rather than the revue-and-sketch formula seen in minstrel shows. That same year, William Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar created the musical playlet Clorindy— The Origin of the Cakewalk. Both of these works resisted negative depictions of blacks as “coons” and “happy darkys,” even as they accommodated them. Similarly, the shows of Williams and Walker showed this duality. Walker was an extremely talented light-complected black man who, due to the convention of the time, had to perform in blackface. One of the most significant black musicals, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s Shuffle Along (1921), unlike other black musicals (save Williams and Walker’s Abyssinia [1905–07]), featured a black love story. While thin on plot, Shuffle Along confronted the pejorative images of African Americans and presented more positive representations. Still, it affirmed notions of an African-American “native” energy in singing and dancing. It was a hit that ran for a year on Broadway at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.
Concerned about the representation of Negroes and the power of those representations to transcend the stage, the NAACP in 1915 formed a drama committee under the direction of W. E. B. DuBois. The committee produced Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimké in March 1916. Billed as “a race play in three acts,” Rachel confronts the social and psychological scars of racism as it focuses on the life of a young, middle-class black woman, Rachel Loving, who decided not to marry or have children because of the overt racism faced by black children in America. Some accused the play of promoting racial genocide. Others, such as Willis Richardson, felt that the stage should not be the place for propaganda but rather for the promotion of folk themes. The play marked an important moment in black theater history by sparking a critical dialogue about the purposes and responsibilities of black drama, and it also served as an inspiration for other black women interested in the theater.
Frustrated by the portrayals of blacks on the American stage by such white playwrights as Eugene O’Neill (The Emperor Jones ), Paul Green (In Abraham’s Bosom ), and Marc Connelly (The Green Pastures ) in and prior to the 1920s, key African-Americans authors, scholars, and critics called for the independent development of a national black theater and the creation of plays by African Americans that more truthfully reflected black experience. In his well-known 1926 manifesto establishing the Krigwa Little Theatre movement, DuBois stated that “a real Negro theatre” must be “About us, By us, For us, and Near us.” Yet, in 1926, few plays satisfied these criteria. Alain Locke published his collection, Plays of Negro Life, in 1927. While it included the work of white playwright Eugene O’Neill, it also contained plays by Jean Toomer and Georgia Douglas Johnson. The anthology, Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro (1930), edited by playwright Willis Richardson, contained pageants and historical pieces intended for use in schools. As a playwright, Richardson was committed to exploring the Negro experience through folk drama. His one-act play, The Chip Woman’s Fortune (1923), became the first serious play by an African American to appear on Broadway.
In order to promote black artistic creation and a different representation of the Negro, during the years 1925 through 1927, DuBois, the editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, and Charles S. Johnson, the editor of the National Urban League’s Opportunity magazine, held a one-act play contest with the winners receiving cash prizes. Many of the winners of the Crisis and Opportunity competitions over these years were women. These included Zora Neale Hurston for Color Struck (1925), Georgia Douglas Johnson for Blue Blood (1925), and Marita Bonner for The Purple Flower (1927). Hurston, Johnson, and Bonner were key contributors to an emergent movement of black women playwrights. The work of these women principally concerned social and cultural themes that had an impact on black women’s lives. Johnson organized a literary salon at her house on S Street in Washington, D.C., that brought together black writers, poets, and dramatists to read their works.
Another important moment in black theater occurred in 1925 when the bellboy-turned-playwright Garland Anderson’s play, Appearances, became the first full-length play by a black playwright on Broadway. The protagonist of the play is a black bellhop falsely accused of raping a white woman. During the course of a trial scene, the woman is exposed both as a mulatto and a liar. Langston Hughes’s Mulatto (1935) was significant both for its production history and the complexity with which Hughes examined the much-mined subject of the tragic mulatto. Within this play, Hughes uses the mulatto son, Robert, as a surrogate for black America demanding reparations, here, a blood debt from his white father. In its extant published form, Hughes’s play retains this radical message. The white director Martin Jones, however, markedly altered Hughes’s script for Broadway, adding a rape and changing the ending of the play. Hughes and Jones entered into a protracted confrontation. The play proved successful on Broadway, but Hughes had an extremely difficult time collecting his royalties from Jones. Thus, his own struggle for rights paralleled the efforts of his central figure in Mulatto.
Concurrent with the production of Mulatto, the depression and the political currents of the times ushered in unique development in African-American theater particularly and American theater more generally. Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, Hallie Flanagan directed the Federal Theatre Project, a national program aimed at putting theater artists back to work. Among the Federal Theatre Project’s locally based theaters were 22 Negro Theatre units in cities such as New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Boston. One of the key plays performed by the Chicago unit was Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (1938), which examines the struggles and generational conflicts of a black family. The play uses the family drama structure to examine diverse black liberation strategies—Garveyism, Pan-Africanism, capitalism, and, ultimately, socialism. The “big white fog” of the title is not white people nor merely racism but a mindset that leads to both the oppression of blacks and the suppression of class struggle. Perceiving the threat of communist influence, Congress shut down the Federal Theatre Project in 1939 after only four years, and this forced black artists to find other creative venues.
Little theaters sprang up in New York and Chicago and other cities. Langston Hughes helped found the Harlem Suitcase Theatre in 1938. One of the more successful groups was the American Negro Theatre, started in 1941. The group’s first production was Abraham Hill’s satire on the black middle class, On Striver’s Row (1941). Also opening in 1941 was the stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s acclaimed novel, Native Son. The play version resulted from the uneasy collaboration of Wright with white playwright Paul Green. While Wright sought to illuminate the social causes behind the violence of Bigger Thomas, Green was more interested in dramatizing Bigger’s complicity in his own fate. Prior to the Broadway opening, producer John Houseman claims to have worked with Hughes to make Green’s script conform more to the ending of the novel. However, only the Green adaptation is now extant. Native Son ran successfully on Broadway and then went on tour. Still, on the whole, the period of the 1940s was rather quiet for black theater, as America moved into war and the backlash of oppression against African Americans became more apparent.
In the 1950s, the emerging black demand for equality and protest against segregation and second-class citizenship would be reflected in the theater. William Branch’s A Medal For Willie (1951) concerns a black mother who speaks out against the discrimination her son faced while in school; she refuses the medal he is supposed to be posthumously awarded for his war bravery, citing the hypocrisy of the ceremony. A major breakthrough in the struggle for civil rights came with the 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring separate but equal education unconstitutional. At the end of this decade, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) came to Broadway. It effectively spoke to its era and beyond as it demonstrated the humanity of a black family on the south side of Chicago struggling to better their lives. The play not only reflected the times but also was a precursor of the more incendiary black theater to follow. It featured a character, Beneatha, in an Afro hairdo for the first time, as well as an intelligent representation of an African character, Joseph Asagai, rather than the stereotypical primitive Africans seen earlier. By focusing on a particular black family and their struggles, pride, and determination, Hansberry established a legacy and created theatrical reverberations that continue to be felt and heard within the black theater.
The 1960s ushered in a period, known as the Black Theatre Movement, in which African-American voices for self-determination and self-articulation rang out. It marked a new black renaissance of sorts as many black theater companies emerged throughout the country and numerous anthologies of black drama were published. The movement, however, did not exhibit simply one ideology nor one style of theatrical practice. LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman (1963) is often credited with initiating the movement. The young middle-class protagonist, Clay, voices the radical directive that only murder of whites by blacks will provide sanity for African Americans; he himself is murdered for his efforts. Soon Jones changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka and with like-minded black cultural nationalists founded the Black Arts Repertory School in Harlem in 1965. Baraka became the key figure of the Black Revolutionary Theatre with works such as Black Mass (1966), Slave Ship (1967), and The Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show (1969). Douglas Turner Ward’s satire A Day of Absence (1965), a one-act play that humorously explores what happens to a small southern town when all the black people disappear for a day, helped to establish the Negro Ensemble Company. In this work, black actors play the white townspeople in whiteface. The Negro Ensemble Company, which continues to exist, produced plays not bent on revolution but on showing the prowess and potential of black performers, playwrights, and designers to an integrated audience. Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1965), a nonrealistic avant-garde piece that focuses on the psychological turmoil and ultimate suicide of a young black woman caught between a white world and a black one, evidenced another aspect of the Black Theatre Movement during this period. Kennedy’s experimental use of form and language would continue to influence black artists in the 1990s, such as Suzan-Lori Parks.
In May 1968, Richard Schechner, editor of the Drama Review, the leading journal of avant-garde and cutting-edge theater, invited black playwright Ed Bullins as guest editor; the Black Theatre Issue, as it was named, became a critical “collective manifesto” for the Black Theatre Movement. Soon to become cultural minister of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, and intensely conscious of the current conditions and the urgent demand for a new black arts practice, Bullins included plays by 14 authors, including two by Baraka (Home on the Range  and Police ) and one by himself (Clara’s Ole Man ). The plays contained in this issue purposefully challenged audience expectations and reoriented the separations between spectators, stage performers, and performance as they sought to etch out a distinctly African-American aesthetic practice.
With the 1970s, African-American drama pulled back from the urgency and adamancy expressed in the earlier decade. Playwrights began to focus on other concerns, but the social relationship of black theater to black life in America remained important. In 1975, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975) created a sensation; in the form of what Shange termed a “choreopoem,” this play spoke to the personal and political intersections of black women’s lives. It was significant to both the African-American theater and to the burgeoning women’s movement in its exploration of a black female communality breaking free of restrictive gender roles and allowing black women to find the god “within themselves” and to love themselves fiercely. Black playwrights continued to go beyond existing definitions of theater and black plays in the decade of the 1970s and into the 1980s.
In 1982, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, among other awards. A Soldier’s Play depicts the debilitating effects of the “madness of race” in America that inhibits and conditions attitudes, perceptions, values, actions, and behavior. In the murder mystery of A Soldier’s Play, questions of guilt and innocence are not simply black and white but are conflated, confused, and compounded. With this play, Fuller started a trend that would continue to inform black theater of the 1980s and into the 1990s: African-American playwrights explored historic themes and reexamined history to see its impact on the present. Celebrated as a “bold new voice” in black theater, The Colored Museum (1986) reverberates with the rage and rhythms of the African-American theatrical past. Playwright George C. Wolfe “colors” the anger and pain of the African-American experience with an incisive satire that both critiques and revises earlier African-American dramatic texts. He also parodies plays of the African-American theatrical past, even as earlier African-American plays and their playwrights inform The Colored Museum in both form and content.
With two Pulitzer Prizes to his credit, the key practitioner of this theatrical return to the past was August Wilson. Wilson reviewed African-American history in the 20th century by writing a play for each decade. With each work, he recreated and reevaluated the choices that blacks have made in the past by refracting them through the lens of the present. The plays focus on the experiences and daily lives of ordinary black people within particular historical circumstances. Carefully situating each play at critical junctures in African-American history, Wilson explored the pain and perseverance, the determination and dignity in these black lives. Although not written in chronological order, the “Century Cycle” plays, covering the 1900s to the 1990s, advance through the century as follows: Gem of the Ocean (2003), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), The Piano Lesson (1987), Seven Guitars (1995), Fences (1985), Two Trains Running (1990), Jitney (1982), King Hedley II (2001) and Radio Golf (2005). All of Wilson’s dramas, except Ma Rainey, are set in Wilson’s childhood home, the Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Central to each play in Wilson’s historical cycle is the concept that the events of the past can and do have a powerful impact on the present. Wilson’s characters’ personal stories are inextricably linked to the history of African-American struggle and survival in this country. Wilson’s death at age 60 from cancer on October 1, 2005—just two weeks after Radio Golf, the 10th and final play of his cycle, ended its run in Los Angeles—will doubtless have a significant impact on the evolution of African-American theater in the new millennium. On October 17, 2005, the Virginia Theater at 245 West 52nd Street in New York City was renamed the August Wilson Theater, making Wilson the first African American to have a Broadway theater named in his honor. Through his work and his words, Wilson has changed the face of American theater and AfricanAmerican theater more particularly. His plays, his legacy, will endure and will animate the future.
Another important voice of the contemporary African-American theater, Suzan-Lori Parks, has turned to history as well in works such as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990), The American Play (1993), and Venus (1996)—all of which deal in part with historical myths and stereotypes. In these works, through a jazz-like process of repetition and revision, Parks celebrates the elasticity, power, and poetry of black dialect in an original formal structure that offers repetition but does not repeat. Another contemporary voice, Robert O’Hara, irreverently questions the lack of a gay presence in the history of slavery in his play Insurrection Holding History (1999), interrogating the African-American past and making space for an alternative narrative. The result of these works is a new experience of history, a new contestatory and contingent engagement with the past that puts into question the historical categorization of race as it probes the meanings of blackness. For Parks, O’Hara, and Wilson, their revisionist historicism has enabled complex renegotiations of blackness.
Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog (2001), about two brothers named Lincoln and Booth. More linear and direct than her earlier work, it marks a new direction for Parks specifically but also for African-American theater more generally. Parks’s creative interests lie in developing new dramatic territory beyond the conventional binary of black and white, and she constructs complex interactions among race, sexuality, family, class, and culture. These complexities are exemplary of the current dynamics of American racial politics.
While revivals of Wilson’s work have made him the most produced playwright in the first decade of the new millennium, productions of plays by new young African-American playwrights have also further expanded the definitions of black theater. Acclaimed MacArthur Award–winning playwright Lynn Nottage in works such as Crumbs from the Table (1995) and Intimate Apparel (2003) has, like Wilson, dealt with historical subjects; yet within this historical frame, Nottage has sought to confront questions of interracial contact and intimacy. In her work, racial identity, personal desire, and the social demands of history collide. Marcus Gardley’s haunting and lyrical shares August Wilson’s interest in memory and the blues. It received considerable critical attention when it played at Yale Repertory Theatre and then Off-Broadway in 2006. Nominated for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in drama, Eisa Davis’s Bulrusher offers a unique language of its own as it contests matters of race, violence, and history.
In this same cultural moment, a new genre of theater has emerged, hip-hop theater. Hip-hop artist Danny Hoch founded the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in New York in 2001, and similar events have sprung up across the country featuring artists and playwrights such as Hobo Junction and Kamilah Frobes and Will Power. Will Power’s play, The Seven, a hip-hop adaptation of Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, played to critical acclaim Off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop in 2006. While hip-hop theater is difficult to define, these new plays clearly pick up on the energy and urgency of hip-hop music and purposefully appeal to members of the hip-hop nation. With their celebration of language and rhythm and their diverse forms of theatrical representation, hip-hop theater works speak to racial and cultural hybridity and open new avenues and new audiences for black theater.
In America today, the definitions, implications, and meanings of race have entered “new territory”; consequently, African-American theater continues to evolve, both in form and content, in ways directly related to the changing social contexts of black lives and black politics and the meanings and representations of blackness.
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