Black Archives Take Center Stage

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with The Journal of Civil and Human Rights on Kate Dossett’s Radical Black Theatre in The New Deal organized by Say Burgin.

WPA Federal Theater Project in New York-Negro Theatre Unit-“Macbeth” (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons)

In Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal, Kate Dossett provides a gripping history of Black theatre in the Federal Theatre Project of the late 1930s – and a powerful methodology for excavating Black radicalism. In the same way that Dossett reads radicalism in this Black theatre heritage by seeing places where space had to be made for the “leaps” of “black performance communities,” Dossett provides a radical methodology of African American theatre history by making space for the documents created by those radicals. Black archives, in this book, take center stage.

As Dossett’s second book, Radial Black Theatre represents the continuation of some key themes from her first book (Bridging Race Divides: Black Nationalism, Feminism and Integration in the United States, 1896-1935) and her ongoing work around gender and archives. A major through line in her work is the question of how cultural practices produce new forms of knowledge about race and gendered realities, particularly for African Americans, that resist hegemonic epistemologies.

In her new book, Dossett explores this question by turning her attention to the theatre written, debated, re-written, and sometimes staged by “Negro Units” of the Federal Theatre Project. Part of the New Deal agency the Works Progress Administration, the FTP operated between 1935 and 1939. Among the many divisions under its umbrella were 17 Negro Units operating in US cities from Seattle, Washington, to Hartford, Connecticut.

Radical Black Theatre is not interested in merely cataloguing a who-what-when-where of these units – though, helpfully, it includes an appendix of “Black Federal Theatre Manuscripts.” Rather, the book recovers how what Dossett calls “black performance communities” shaped and often contested the theatre being written and produced in the federal project in ways that challenged racist and otherwise limited imaginings of African American history and life. Black performance communities comprised all those practitioners employed by the FTP (actors, directors, set designers, etc.), as well as the audiences that include “those for whom the play is imagined, who imagine themselves as the audience for a drama, as well as those who turn out to watch a performance” (11). As such, in the late 1930s, such communities included Popular Front and civil rights groups such as the National Negro Congress, the National Urban League and others.

What Dossett uncovers are Black communities deeply engaged with federal theatre as a political force and a public service. Foregrounded in her study are the contestations pitched by Black performance communities in attempts to exert greater autonomy both on and off the stage. She finds, for instance, that many Black actors went off-script and played with lines, with or without the support of white directors and stage managers. Seattle’s Negro Unit circumvented white supervisors to contest the production of Porgy and pushed, successfully, to stage Stevedore (67-68). What’s more, the troupe in that unit seems to have omitted the final white savior culmination of Stevedore when it produced that play in May 1936, giving the play an ending that more clearly centered Black self-determination rather than a romanticized depiction of interracial workers struggle (68-72).

How Radical Black Theatre reveals such moments of resistance is a masterclass in reading within, across, and through theatre and Black archives. The FTP’s “administrative archive” “need not be the sole or primary focus” (16). In fact by reading that archive’s production bulletins, correspondence and manuscripts alongside “variant” theatre manuscripts held in other archives, oral histories, and African American press coverage of Black theatre, Dossett’s study shows how limiting our understandings of Black theatre and radicalism may be if we focus solely on the final, published theatre manuscripts. Examining revisions made to both white- and Black-authored theatre manuscripts under development within various Negro Units reveals a breathtaking “archive of black agency” (6) that simply would not appear if the focus was solely on polished texts – or on manuscripts that made it to the stage.

Such a dynamic process between Black performance communities and manuscript-crafting is unearthed, for instance, in an examination of Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog. When in the winter and spring of 1938, Shirley Graham invited Ward to read his play for “South Side community leaders” in Chicago in order to judge its potential to attract Black audiences (164), very few took issue with the Communist plot-line, despite the fact that it has largely been remembered as controversial for that reason. What Dossett finds instead is a Black performance community that was more “concerned [with] the representation of the racial and gender politics of black families and [the play’s] pessimistic ending” (171). Graham summarized the feedback to Chicago’s FTP director:

People have said to me, ‘This play is not representative of us….black men are respected not only in their own homes, but throughout the community – our respectable women do not keep all kind of rooming houses..’ Except for a few exceptions, whether or not the play was communistic seemed to be of minor importance. (164)

Reading across five variant manuscripts, including hand-written revisions on the scripts, Dossett finds modifications that softened gendered presentations of Blackness and intra-racial conflicts in the version of Big White Fog that ultimately appeared in Chicago in April 1938. In other words, Chicago’s Black performance community wrestled with and shaped the theatre staged by the federal government.

Foregrounding Black agency rather than finalized manuscripts allows for one of the more powerful and important contributions in Radical Black Theatre: that Black women helped to craft, author, and produce Black theatre in the late 1930s. Rarely credited with authorship, African American women nonetheless contributed to the ideas, dialogue, and representations that appeared in Negro Unit theatre manuscripts. In Stars and Bars, a Black Living Newspaper usually credited solely to white playwright Ward Courtney, Dossett finds a wider interracial group that included Black men and women who collectively contributed to the manuscript in myriad ways. A hard-hitting drama about Northern discrimination and injustices (as well as a satire of the Living Newspaper genre), Stars and Bars never made it to the stage despite the great effort and “successful” collaboration put into it by the Hartford Negro Unit and “white supervisors and playwrights” of FTP (89). Variant manuscripts not only explicitly reveal a collaborative research and writing process (94), but also the specific contributions of several Black women. A “Miss Jones” provided “permission” for a scene depicting racial discrimination in a café, while the famed Gwen Reed wrote a part of the play “about the second-class medical treatment received by black Americans” (100). These and other findings serve as powerful reminders that Black women often carried out important cultural, political, and intellectual work for which men (white and Black) would get the glory.

As such, Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal offers us both a rich study of Black agency and compelling reason to bring our interrogations of Black archives more centrally into our texts. Indeed, Radical Black Theatre models just how that might be done. Throughout the book, Black archives are not far-off repositories that have been hunched over, mulled through, and then hidden in footnotes. Their presence is central to each chapter – which manuscripts are held at various locations, how many copies there are, how they deviate from other versions; what kinds of information Works Progress Administration press releases carried about FTP productions and why that matters for understanding theatre collaborations, public pressure campaigns and what got staged and didn’t.

Bringing these archives and this information into the text, rather than the endnotes, of Radical Black Theatre reminds readers (historians and generalists alike) that the knowledge produced about the New Deal and African American theatre has always been historically situated and partial. Dossett would surely make no claim to have written the authoritative account on Black federal theatre; making her archival work part of the discussion makes honest and clear that she, too, is participating in a set of longer and larger practices to make knowable this history. It also represents a beautifully generous practice of cracking open these archives for a wider audience.

As Dossett points out, the question “of who gets to access and mediate” Black theatre’s “literary and production heritage” (xii) is one that should trouble knowledge producers. For accessing this heritage must include more than the ability to read completed theatre manuscripts. To view the fuller, exciting histories of Black women’s labor and ideas, the agency of Black performance communities, and challenges to dominant racial epistemologies, Radical Black Theatre makes clear that we need to view and talk about the archive itself.

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