Black Theater History is Still Radical
*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.
Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal returns to the historic time of the 1930s Federal Theatre Project when African Americans established viable community-based theatre organizations in New York and other urban spaces. Kate Dossett posits that Black community-based theatre is a radical act. As a theatre practitioner interested in promoting stories about African American lifestyles, I can ascertain that Black community-based theatre, then and now, continues to be a space where expressions of communal solidarity around telling Black stories is perceived as radical. Institutions like the National Black Theatre in Harlem or the generative Frank Silvera’s Writer’s Workshop persist as centers for community-based storytelling. They are dedicated to revealing realities of Black lives even as they struggle to remain financially solvent. While these theatres occasionally receive recognitions from the mainstream press, in general, they float beneath the radar of white critics. In this way, they are similar to theatres like the Harlem Negro Unit and the Lafayette Theatre aptly described in Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal.
More importantly, I consider the volume an essential text for theatre programs and community organizations educating the next generation of Black artists. Dossett mines a historical archive of scripts and production memorabilia to document African American theatrical performances seldom discussed in undergraduate university theatre history programs. University curricula tend to overlook Black productions based in social realism even though these same productions were designed to educate publics about realities of Black communities. Instead, students learn about historical Black performance primarily through the lens of minstrelsy–a genre most often taught as a racist representation of Black people. Denying the presence of African American social realist literature and substituting a curriculum about the impact of racism expressed through minstrelsy effectively erases African American lived experiences. Instead, students learn about the pervasive racism of the white populace without deeply engaging in stories written and told by Black folks.
Under the Federal Theatre Project, which operated during the time of the Great Depression, the federal government paid unemployed Black cultural workers to create theatre. I have often considered this short period of nationalized theatre to be an ideal model for how diverse cultural productions could be supported by the federal government within an economic landscape similar to our current financial crisis. It’s unlikely to happen, in part, because the value of theatre arts has been delegitimized. Human collective emotive experiences have been superseded by electronic media productions within highly-capitalized storytelling enterprises of broadcast streaming and cable television. What Dossett’s book does is to remind us of how important it was, and is, for Black communities to be physically present with one another. Only when communities gather to debate ideas and processes for advancement can new, radical ideas for social activism emerge. This strategy for nurturing Black aesthetics builds from writings by W.E.B. Du Bois who advocated for an African American theatre by, for, near and about African American communities.
I am particularly moved to write about the importance of this book and its contents because of a recent teaching experience. Dossett writes about white playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Paul Green who penned plays about race and Black life such as The Emperor Jones and Abraham’s Bosom. O’Neill’s impact on the American theatre was profound – he is one of our discipline’s great white authors. I sometimes teach at a training center dedicated to his memory, the Eugene O’Neill Center. It’s National Theatre Institute immerses students in theatre practice, new work creation, and social activism through an intensive training program which I appreciate being a part of. In our Covid19 environment, I was recently asked to lead an online unit which would educate NTI students about African American drama. I chose a play from the historical time period Dossett writes about, Don’t You Want to Be Free by Langston Hughes. The play is a little-known, social activist, non-realistic play in the style of Liberty Deferred. Using archetypal characters and voicing poetical works by Langston Hughes, the drama tells the story of African American slavery, lynching, migration, and racial inequity. Poems like “The Negro Mother” punctuate its presentational style. The play ends with a socialist call for unity of all oppressed individuals, Black and white, to come together and fight for justice. From my perspective, it seemed an ideal vehicle for introducing activism, poetry, and history in a single text.
The results were eye-opening. Students found the text to be shocking. Several of the white students said they never knew about the violence and brutality of white racism against Black people, including slavery. Some Black students were enraged because white students seemed unaware of basic aspects of their collective histories. Other Black students of Caribbean or other heritages found the discussion of United States migrations and oppressions to be irrelevant to their personal histories. And no one wanted to speak the word “Negro” out loud. What seemed to me to be historical performance (like Shakespeare or Beckett) landed in this space as radical.
And that, I believe is the point of Dossett’s volume. Plays, written in the 1930s which offered spaces for Black community engagement in Black aesthetics and production paradigms, were radical. They allowed spaces for Black heroes, social activism, and Black grief. We are still seeking those spaces as we educate students about theatrical possibilities. The students I taught in that online community had not been exposed to dramas about African American life written by African Americans living within a fraught historical time. If we do not learn more about these plays, how will we be able to teach theatre practitioners that more than one storytelling history matters? Dossett offers readers at least one text which carefully delineates the impact of a history of radical Black theatre. I would like to see more theatre educators embrace the challenge of using a text like this each semester.permission.