Black Theatre Manuscripts as an Archive of Black Radicalism–An Author’s Response

*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.

Photo: WPA Federal Theatre Production of The Case of Philip Lawrence, 1937 (Library of Congress)

The work of Black creatives on the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) that most resonates today challenges longstanding racial injustices, the pain of which is no less felt now than in the 1930s. Liberty Deferred (Abram Hill and John Silvera, 1937-38) examines voter suppression and lynching, while Stars and Bars (Hartford Negro Unit with Ward Courtney, 1937-8) considers the violence enacted against African Americans through denying access to health care and housing. Both were Living Newspapers, documentary dramas that shone a spotlight on America’s social problems through a mixture of verbatim reportage, satire, and experimental staging. Although the FTP produced newspapers on a range of contentious subjects, including syphilis and slum housing, Living Newspapers devised by Black performance communities were never staged.

Eighty years on, in another country, Black Living Newspapers found an audience. In 2016, I was commissioned by the National Theatre (NT) in London to curate ‘African American Playwriting in the Twentieth Century,’

a two-day programme to complement the National’s new productions of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs. While multiracial audiences packed the NT’s Lyttelton and Olivier theatres to watch America’s most often revived Black dramatists, over in the Clore Learning Centre, Black theatre directors, playwrights, actors, and students explored the rich and diverse history of Black play making beyond the canon. Ola Ince directed Jermaine Dominique, Terri Ann Bobb-Baxter, Tamara Lawrance and Kadeem Pearse in staged readings of Black federal theatre dramas, including Liberty Deferred. Black creatives were blown away by the performance, by how the Living Newspaper spoke to the needs of the present. Hill and Silvera’s biting satire – it includes a scene set in Lynchotopia, a land inhabited by ghostly victims of white lynch mobs – offers a way to reflect on the long histories of resistance to attempts to dehumanize Black Americans out of which the Black Lives Matter movement arose. But as we discussed the role of knowledge producing institutions (archives, universities, publishers, and theatres) in erasing Black theatre heritage, workshop participants also expressed their frustration that such a rich archive of Black plays was unknown to them. If Liberty Deferred’s legibility to twenty first century audiences serves as a poignant reminder of the still unaddressed legacies of slavery, its continued marginalization within the repertoire offers a way to reflect on the power of the archive in preventing such a reckoning.

Who gets to access and narrate Black history, and why this matters, are questions at the heart of Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal. They are –or should be – critical issues for all history and theatre educators today. Why is it, as Gonzales points out, that students of Black performance are more familiar with minstrelsy than with Black social realism, and why was it so easy for Krasner’s adviser to claim there was no archive of Black theatre makers? In her 2008 essay exploring how to use but not replicate the violence of the archive, Saidiya Hartman argues, “The history of black counter historical projects is one of failure, precisely because these accounts have never been able to install themselves as history, but rather are insurgent, disruptive narratives that are marginalized and derailed before they ever gain a footing.”1 How do Black counter theatre histories install themselves in history when the plays and theatre communities they explore also struggle to gain a footing?

To become installed in history, dramas usually need to have been published, staged, or both: in 1930s America this meant they had to meet the standards constructed and maintained by institutions invested in white knowledge production. Unsurprisingly, most of the radical Black dramas devised by Black performance communities during the FTP never made the leap from page to stage. Two of those that were staged, Theodore Browne’s Natural Man (1937) and Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (1938), had to wait until the 1970s before they were published, and even then the published versions differed to the provocative manuscripts staged by the Seattle and Chicago Negro Units in the 1930s. Others came close to opening: Browne’s Harriet Tubman drama, Go Down Moses, (1938) was cast and rehearsed but failed to open before the project was defunded in 1939. Many more, including Black Living Newspapers were denied the resources required to transform necessarily incomplete texts into theatre. As Cox reminds us, Living Newspapers written by white dramatists were supported by teams of researchers and dramatists. One Third of a Nation, the FTP’s most ‘successful’ Living Newspaper was the product of a five-week summer school at Vassar School which included just two African Americans (Shirley Graham, playwright, composer, and supervisor on the Chicago Negro Unit and Byron Webb, technical director at the Harlem Negro Unit) out of the forty specially chosen theatre practitioners from across the FTP.

The history of the enormous investments required to bring mediocre white work to the stage and then install it in the canon has yet to be written. If it were, it would serve as a useful corrective to the excuses deployed (past and present) for the failure to fund, develop, and stage Black work: Black work lacks universal appeal; the long history of exclusion has denied Black theatre makers the training required to produce quality work; there are no Black dramas out there. These myths were regularly repeated by white supervisors on the Federal Theatre Project who instead turned to Paul Green and other white dramatists skilled at writing Black characters in “scenes of subjection.” Black theatre makers, before and since, have had to take on and attempt to destroy these narratives and their regenerative power.

One of the remarkable achievements of the Black Arts Movement was its recovery of a Black radical theatre tradition which extended back to slavery, a project facilitated by the recovery and restoration of the Federal Theatre Archive at George Mason University (GMU). Consigned by the Library of Congress to an unsuitable warehouse off-site, in 1974 the archive was restored by Professor Lorraine Brown and a team of researchers at GMU who set up a research centre and an oral history program which foregrounded the contributions and personal archives of Black federal theatre makers. The same year, Black federal theatre dramas (Natural Man and Big White Fog) were published for the first time, in James Hatch and Ted Shine’s landmark anthology Black Theater U.S.A. (1974). Newly accessible, Big White Fog received major new productions in Minneapolis (Penumbra, Guthrie Theatre, 1995) and London (Almeida, 2007). Black federal theatre seemed to be planting firmer foundations. In 2020 however, Black federal dramas are marginal to, if not absent from, most histories and anthologies of American theatre and Black dramatic literature from the 1930s.2 But rather than view the history of Black federal theatre as another insurgent narrative, easily forestalled, its archive offers us a method for how such projects might both enter and stay in history.

Historians have long debated where and how to “talk about the archive” as Burgin puts it. Placing archive stories and our methodologies for engaging them at the centre of historical narratives, the scholarship of Marisa Fuentes, LaShawn Harris, and Saidiya Hartman is part of a rich body of brilliant Black feminist work that has enabled us to “view the fuller, exciting histories of Black women’s labor and ideas.” Yet dissertation advisers, journal publishers, and series editors continue to encourage authors to park their archive discussions in the endnotes or siphon off their archival nerdiness into neatly curated monograph series on historical “practice.” Putting distance between the narrative and the processes that produce it offers readers what Jacqueline Wernimont calls a “clean” reading experience. In her discussion of digital literary recovery projects, Wernimont suggests their creators often imagine users as “welcoming an unchallenging, ‘clean’ experience that facilities an easy interaction.” The conceit that readers are only interested in an orderly historical narrative serves those whose domination has relied on their repetition of their narrative authority. Such claims to coherence make it difficult for counter historical projects to admit that knowledge is partial and incomplete; yet in making visible the rules which shape all claims to authority, including counter historical projects, we find a method for installing Black counter historical projects in history.

In researching Radical Black Theatre I wanted to find out what Black communities had to say about their practice and why theatre manuscripts became important vehicles for debating alternative paths to a radically different future. Theatre journals, newspaper reviews, and the administrative archive of the Federal Theatre Project tells us what white Americans thought about Black theatre and sometimes what Black Americans thought about white theatre’s idea of Black theatre. Such institutions seldom made space for Black knowledge about Black experiences. Black theatre manuscripts, on the other hand, contain conflicting and contested Black narratives about America’s past and future. Replete with hand-written additions, crossings-out, and changed endings, variant Black theatre manuscripts were where Black theatre makers theorized and debated how to construct narratives difficult to derail. Here, the rules which shape American theatre practise are made visible, here the relationship between Black performance and white spectatorship is unpicked and questioned, here the strategies for installing Black counter histories debated.

Early on, in the manuscript of Liberty Deferred, Hill and Silvera explore ways to disrupt the white gaze by positioning white spectators in a position of “looking-at- being-looked-at-ness.”3 The reader/audience is invited to watch Ted and Linda, a Black couple, dancing on stage while they observe white spectators enjoying a Black show. Ted observes: “They love to watch us dance. Dancing on the levy. Dancing on the old plantation. Dancing in the floor-show. Or, dancing on the end of a rope.”4 Liberty Deferred was never approved for production: Emmet Lavery, the playwrights’ white supervisor, pressured Hill and Silvera to change the perspective from which they told their story, to make Black characters narrate their story before Black spectators. To demand that actual white theatre audiences be required to look at white spectators “being looked at” by Black performers before actual interracial audiences was beyond what many white theatre practitioners could imagine possible. The playwrights resisted. Eventually they produced a revised draft that includes, even as it parodies, Lavery’s proposed amendments.

During the COVID-19 lockdown major theatre institutions have streamed performances from the archives to keep in touch with their audiences and, we might add, to remind us of their place and power within the theatre world. Black performance communities continue to create alternative spaces from which to make visible the rules of theatre practice and racialized knowledge production. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and #TheShowMustBePaused social media initiatives by music and performing arts institutions wanting to demonstrate solidarity for anti-racist struggles, a group of Black, Indigenous and People of Color theatremakers organized an open letter to “White American Theater.” Insisting “We See You”, they demanded radical change to anti-Black theatre practices. Others have created online spaces for Black communities to be virtually “present with one another” to debate, discuss, and centre Black theatre manuscripts. Beyond the Canon, a project which grew out of Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway’s search for Black British theatre manuscripts, has launched #BTC Writers Room, to celebrate Black, Asian, Latinx, and Middle Eastern plays and writers, to let students “know that they are valued, seen and appreciated as well as promote and Champion hidden plays.” The Black Ticket Project founded by Tobi Kyeremateng in 2018 to provide young Black people with free tickets to Black theatre, recently launched the #BTPReadUp project with tiata fahozi theatre to promote the reading and dissemination of Black British plays during and beyond lockdown.

These spaces are open to and attract a broad multiracial audience. They offer opportunities to create models of multiracial solidarity that provide space to learn from and learn how to value Black knowledge. And they remind us that theatre, as Wright notes, can be a space where interracial solidarity is cultivated. But for interracial solidarity to be converted to radical change, theatre and theatre histories must first reckon with the racist past they have inherited. We must learn how to treasure and protect the rich heritage of radical Black theatre.

  1. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts” Small Axe, 26 (2008), 13.
  2. For an exception see Eve Dunbar and Ayesha Hardison’s forthcoming volume on African American Literature in Transition, 1930-1940: Vol. 12. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory/ Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism.” TDR (1988), 32: 1, (1988), 90.
  4. Dossett, Radical Black Theatre, 120.
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Kate Dossett

Kate Dossett is Associate Professor in United States History at the University of Leeds in Britain where she researches and teaches African American and women’s history. Her 2008 book, Bridging Race Divides: Feminism, Nationalism and Integration, 1896-1935 (University Press of Florida, 2008) was awarded the 2009 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize by the Southern Association of Women Historians. Her latest book, Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal (UNC Press, 2020), examines black theatre and performance in the Federal Theatre Project. Her current project, Archives of Surveillance and Black Cultural History examines how the collection of black cultural archives by the British and U.S governments in the early twentieth century shapes access to and knowledge production about black history and heritage today. You can follow her on Twitter @kmdossett.