Civil Rights Playwrights as Black Intellectuals

Lorraine Hansberry (Chicago Sun Times).

In the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s recent roundtable on Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, contributors reaffirmed the significance of Harold Cruse’s 1967 polemic. What was unmentioned in this roundtable, however, is Cruse’s insistence on the importance of theater, theater artists (especially playwrights), and Black stage representation to Black cultural, political, and social life. For Cruse, the failure of African Americans to develop and sustain their own, ethnically Black cultural institutions is at the heart of the “crisis” he identifies. Long unrecognized as such, The Crisis is an important work of twentieth century theater criticism.

Though Cruse evinces little esteem for the regnant playwrights of his day—“civil writers” James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, and Lorraine Hansberry come in for particular vitriol—he contends that Black playwrights should have been and could be some of Black America’s foremost intellectuals. According to Cruse (a frustrated playwright himself), Black playwrights’ incipient cultural leadership was quashed by civil rights-style integrationism, and a Marxist interracialism deeply out of touch with the needs of the Black community in Harlem. These strands combined, in Cruse’s view, in cultural organizations like Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, which preferred mounting “white plays with Negro casts” to developing Black writing talent.

Cruse is particularly hard on playwrights not because he believes them to be irrelevant, but because he understands theater to be “an institution that combines nearly all the other art forms,” one which could be wielded for his program of cultural nationalism. Theater was especially important since other popular forms of media—TV, radio, and film—were so dominated by white power brokers and rife with racist imagery (though this was slowly changing, often thanks to the very artists and theater groups Cruse derides, like Sidney Poitier, who got his start at the American Negro Theatre).

A scene from the American Negro Theatre’s “On Strivers’ Row” stage production. (Image: Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center, NYPL).

If we take seriously Cruse’s insistence that Black cultural workers—playwrights and theater artists in particular—are and have been vital Black intellectuals, what we find is a much more complex portrait of mid-twentieth century drama than The Crisis acknowledges. Contrary to Cruse’s insistence, playwrights articulated a vision of “civil rights” that went far beyond mere integration. Black theater during the post-War and Cold War era evinced a range of radical themes: resistance to the narrowing of the civil rights agenda to integrationist liberalism; struggle against increasingly oppressive anticommunism; opposition to the Communist Party’s weakened race radicalism during the Popular Front; manifestations of a Bandungian internationalism that figured the Korean and Vietnam wars as imperialist; and expression of a visionary, intersectional feminism that employed Claudia Jones’s and other black women’s ideas of “triple oppression.”1 Situating Black civil rights theater within the context of the “long civil rights movement,” then, is critical in understanding how it manifested tensions with both mainstream civil rights and orthodox Marxism.

But perhaps the most innovative contribution Black theatrical intellectuals made was the one uniquely suited for theater. They revealed the Cold War American state to be dependent on performance and a regime of racist representation of Black people as satisfied with the promise of integration. By way of example, I will discuss here African American playwright William Branch’s 1951 A Medal for Willie. This one-act protest drama not only portrays Black activism against the Korean War as a means of opposing Jim Crow, but also reveals that America’s imperialist project is dependent on performance of Black subservience to the American state.

A Medal for Willie offers a portrait of a small, Southern town as its residents prepare for a posthumous medal ceremony in memory of Corporal Willie Jackson, killed in action in Korea. Across a series of vignettes, Branch explores why young Willie enlisted—namely, a lack of educational and professional opportunities, combined with the criminalization of young Black men. Branch, a former solider himself, also takes up the hypocrisy and constructed narratives at the heart of patriotism: in one scene, a rich white man’s son escapes the draft through college and bribery; in another, the local newspaper editor frames Willie’s heroism as an affirmation of “the American way of life,” by which he means Jim Crow.

The play culminates in an impromptu protest by Willie’s mother, who realizes she cannot meekly accept her son’s medal. She refuses to read a prepared speech written for her by the Principal of the segregated Booker T. Washington High School, where the ceremony is held:

You-all ‘spect me to ‘cept this medal and read that speech you had all ready for me, say, ‘Thank you kindly, suhs,’ and then go home an’ be happy about the whole thing. But I can’t! I can’t go through with this—this big LIE.

Mrs. Jackson tells the dumbfounded town leaders that they “jim-crowed” her son, giving him “a third-rate schoolin.’” Mrs. Jackson concludes, “I can’t help thinkin’ Willie died fightin’ in the wrong place… Willie shoulda had that machine gun over here!,” finishing, with a rhetorical flourish, by hurling the medal at a visiting Army General and “defiantly” storming off stage.

Mrs. Jackson’s speech tapped into an increasingly popular sentiment in Black activist circles: that the Korean War was a deliberate distraction from the more pressing matter of civil rights at home and, further, that anticommunism was used as a means of suppressing Black dissent. But Branch’s innovation as a Black intellectual is to reveal how the American government propped up its imperialist regime with staging and performance. In A Medal for Willie, Mrs. Jackson’s powerful, unrehearsed speech calls attention to the staged-ness of the medal ceremony, during which she was supposed to act like a compliant, patriotic mother—a performance that, Mrs. Jackson argues, upholds white supremacy. A prologue and epilogue underline this metatheatricalness, with Branch employing modernist staging techniques quite radical for 1951: as the play begins, the audience sits with full houselights on while two janitors “set the stage as if for an assembly,” cleaning and hanging a large American flag. Branch, who was blacklisted after A Medal for Willie, insists that his audience witness the machinery operating behind the scenes, exposing the creation of American pro-war propaganda.

Wildly popular, A Medal for Willie was praised by Lorraine Hansberry, then a young theater critic for Masses & Mainstream, the Communist Party’s cultural journal: “Watching the play, I experience the glorious feeling that perhaps now—in our time—the dream of a New Harlem Theatre shall be realized.” Despite Hansberry’s distinctly Crusian wish for a Harlem-based theater, A Medal for Willie would have likely vexed the irascible theater critic in Cruse, with its interracial cast and its production company (the leftist Committee for the Negro in the Arts—an explicitly integrationist organization—which Cruse ridicules as “the Committee for Some Negroes in the Arts”). It can hardly be said, however, that the vital Black theater of the civil rights-Cold War era was either merely integrationist or dogmatically Marxist. Much more radical and more independent from white-dominated institutions than Cruse’s Crisis gives them credit for, Black theater intellectuals offered a “ruthless criticism” of American institutions, worthy of Cruse himself.

  1. See Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Duke University Press, 2007)
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Julie Burrell

Julie Burrell is an Assistant Professor at Cleveland State University, teaching courses on African American literature and drama. She is currently at work on the book Staging Freedom: The Civil Rights Theatre Movement in New York, 1939-1966. Follow her on Twitter @profburrell.