Contesting the 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.

Photo: Federal Theater Project, 1930s, (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

When I entered the graduate doctoral program in 1990, I was assigned in my first class a research project on Eugene O’Neill’s early career with the Provincetown Players (1915-1922).  Along the way I researched O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, the 1920 play that established Charles Gilpin, the play’s leading actor, as a Broadway star. As I researched the archives of Gilpin’s life, I found that his performance in O’Neill’s play was hardly the beginning of his career; his record of performances dated back over two decades before The Emperor Jones. I approached my professor about Gilpin’s history, asking if I might focus on Gilpin rather than the already well-known history of the Provincetown Players and O’Neill’s relationship with them. The professor responded to my request by saying, regarding Gilpin and Black theatre, that “there’s nothing there.” I begged to differ, pushing back with evidence of Gilpin’s long and flourishing career before The Emperor Jones. The archival evidence was, indeed, “there,” though it was lying dormant at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Hatch-Billops Collection, among other places.

I raise this experience because it demonstrates the stubborn resistance to Black theatre history even among left-leaning professors and relates directly to Kate Dossett’s carefully detailed account examining African American left-wing theatre projects during the New Deal era, c. 1935-1940. Dossett draws upon archival manuscripts of Black theatre history, and in doing so unearths a magnificent period of African American theatrical creativity. During this late-Depression period, African American performers used support and funding from the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project to “create new possibilities and push open the parameters that had constrained black drama” (9). Despite the economy and the ongoing brutal restraint from racist Jim Crow laws and lynchings, Black actors, directors, playwrights, designers, and producers wrote, rehearsed, and enacted dramas that related to the African American experience. Whether the plays were historical (Haiti) or contemporary (Big White Fog), African American drama and performance flourished despite enormous obstacles. The so-called “Negro Units” of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) surfaced not only in New York, the mecca of show business, but nationally, in nearly every city with a sufficient African American population.  

Dossett raises the theme of “black performance communities,” which “shaped the critical reception of dramas performed by Negro Units” (12).  The book also emphasizes Black radicalism by focusing on dramatic manuscripts, whether they were produced or not. The book sifts through archives of recondite theatre manuscripts during the era, making the case that Black theatre productions of the period “are contested sites of knowledge production shaped by long-standing practices of racial exclusion and omission” (16). Combing through these manuscripts affords Dossett the opportunity to illustrate the ways in which Black political radicalism, especially influenced by Marcus Garvey and left-wing ideology, were either highlighted, implemented, or purged from the texts and subsequent productions.

Dossett examines manuscripts of Black plays that may or may not have seen the light of production. This allows Dossett to explore the ebb and flow of works that received pushback and censoring during an era of Jim Crow segregation and anti-leftism. The book focuses on “theatre manuscripts authored and developed by African Americans in black performance communities” participating in the Federal Theatre Project (FTP, 23) in order to demonstrate the radical desires of Black theatre artists. Many plays and productions faced censorship, given the rising anti-Communism of the period. As a result, productions staged or planned to be staged received shifting emphases, thereby creating multiple versions of the same play.  Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (staged in Chicago in 1937 and in New York in 1940), Theodore Browne’s Natural Man (Seattle in 1937 and in New York in 1941), for example, are merely two of many plays that underwent the push and pull of revision in order to satisfy multiple audiences as well as government and theatre officials. Some scripts were never staged, yet they, too, experienced revisions, attempting to find their way towards staging.

For Dossett, engaging with FTP manuscripts “in different stages of revision allows us to consider how radical ideas were rehearsed, contested, and sometimes staged in a particular historical moment” (25). This is especially important because the radicalism of the 1930s became deluded during post-World War II Cold War America. Accounts of African American Federal Theatre Dramas, Dossett says, “”tend to read backwards, for they draw on the revised theatre manuscripts published in the 1974 anthology Black Theatre U.S.A. rather than those manuscripts developed during the Federal Theatre Project” (25). The James Hatch and Ted Shine Black Theatre U.S.A. anthology, perhaps the most frequently used anthology of African American drama, only presents part of the picture. The aim of this book is to draw the veneer aside and pinpoint the leftist views of the plays, playwrights, and theatre artists of the late 1930s.

Chapter One examines the play Stevedore (1934), produced by the Theatre Union. It was a play derided by white critics as melodramatic and pro-leftist yet was hailed by Black critics as a breakthrough drama. The play concerns a labor strike and interracial unions fighting corporate oppression.  he author examines the agit-prop agenda of the play, but what is significant is the way the play illustrates the timely conflicts of racism and classism, becoming one of the landmark plays of the radical New Deal left. Chapter Two considers the Popular Front “Living Newspaper,” a form of drama that literally lifts itself from the pages of current events. Two plays, Stars and Bars and Liberty Deferred (1937-8), highlight “the relationship between black performance and white spectatorship,” that “both parody the theatrical devices of the FTP’s Living Newspaper” (81).  In doing so, these two plays satirize the methods and technique of the Living Newspaper, unmasking “performative devices used within white Living Newspapers that consolidate, even as they critique, the racial discourses that enforce black subordination” (81).   As Dossett contends, the “negotiations which took place between black dramatists and white Federal Theatre Administrators” over productions “suggest that black dramatists mastered, critiqued, and even parodied white conceptions of theatre” (101).

John Henry is the subject of Chapter Three. In the play by Theodore Browne, Natural Man (1937-41), John Henry is the main subject, but as Dossett argues, the various versions of the manuscripts show how “African Americans imagined, debated, and dramatized the black hero in Federal Theatre dramas.” Black artists, Dossett continues, “debated what needed to be dismantled, and what new interpretative parameters built, in order to create black heroes that were legible to black as well as white audiences” (122). Chapter Four takes up Theodore’s Big White Fog (1937-8), perhaps the most representative drama of the African American theatre in the late 1930s. It directly raises the political ideology of Garvey’s Black Nationalist/Back to Africa Movement and Communism.  

The final chapter examines the play Haiti (1938), authored by the white dramatist William Dubois. The dialectic struggle to make the play into a racist drama of primitivism faced the pressure of Black directors and actors to turn the play into a celebration of two major figures in Black liberation: Toussaint L’Ouverture and Henri Christophe. Black theatre artists “used Haiti to demand greater autonomy for African Americans and Negro Units within the Federal Theatre Project and to position these demands as part of the broader black freedom struggle” (205).     

The book’s theme is that “black theatre manuscripts developed under the auspices of the FTP helped shape the landscape of what was imagined possible within the parameters of black Federal Theatre, even when they were not produced” (237).  What is compelling about the book is how manuscripts can hold contested sites of ideology, and how the dialectical ebb and flow of artistic endeavor clashed with obstacles and roadblocks set up by the status quo. This command of the status quo is why, the author argues, the early Black Arts Movement of the 1960s “found little worthy of the name ‘radical’ in the work of their predecessors” (253). The author has ably and articulately countered this assertion, illuminating the radicalism of the Black dramas of the New Deal 1930s found in the manuscripts and gainsaying the alleged temperance of 1930s Black dramas and their productions. If the productions were watered down by white producers and critics, this was not the fault of Black theatre artists eager to challenge the authority of white-owned theatres and theatrical productions. The archives of Black manuscripts are a rich repository of Black theatre history that has been, until now, largely overlooked.  Now uncovered, scholars can observe the radicalism of these theatre artists who created plays that were as forceful as the ones created by the generation that followed.

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David Krasner

David Krasner has taught acting, directing, and theatre history for 40 years. He is currently Chair of Theatre at Five Towns College in Long Island, New York, where he oversees the BFA Program in Musical Theatre, Acting, and Design/Tech. He was formerly Dean of the School of the Arts at Dean College for five years; Head of the BFA Acting Program at Emerson College for five years; Director of Undergraduate Theatre at Yale University for six of his ten years there; Head of the MFA Directing Program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for two years; and taught acting, voice, speech, and movement at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York for nine years. As an actor in New York for twelve years he appeared on stage, film, and TV commercials. He received his Ph. D. from Tufts University, MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, and BFA in acting from Carnegie Mellon University. He studied acting privately with Paul Mann, Kim Stanley, and Barbara Loden, as well as movement from Moshe Feldenkrais. He is the author and editor of eleven books, three dozen articles, and over sixty book and performance reviews, ranging from theatre history, dramatic literature, a two-volume history of modern drama, acting, theatre and philosophy, theatre in theory, and a two-volume history of African American Theatre.