Finding Freedom in Black Radical Manuscripts

*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: Pearl Primus (Flickr)

In the introduction to Black Radical Theatre in the New DealKate Dossett recounts the origins of a guiding metaphor:

“In a conference roundtable discussion subsequently published in Small Axe (2013), scholars of black radicalism considered “The Idea of the Radical Black Tradition.” [Nikhil] Singh riffed on Farah Griffin’s discussion of Pearl Primus, the black dancer and choreographer, who in the early 1940s persuaded the white impresario Barney Josephson to let her perform at his interracial nightclub, Café Society, in downtown New York City: “When she leaped, he had to make space for her. And I thought that was really interesting because the initiative comes from the leap […] The leap itself is an engendering of freedom, and it creates consequences in the world that actually matter” (32).

At the center of this story is Primus, and how she figures Black radical expression in a singular, muscular bound. In the background, however, is a story of transmission. Primus’ leap inspires Griffin’s interpretation and Singh’s response, the publication of their ideas in a Caribbean journal of criticism, and finally, Dossett’s careful reconstruction in her book. “The initiative” indeed “comes from the leap,” but it accrues new possibilities in interpretation and revision, in moving bodies, printed texts, and their syncopated landings.

In Black Radical Theatre, Dossett honors this collaborative model of intellectual and creative exchange to fill a crucial gap. Scholarship on the U.S. Federal Theatre Project (FTP; 1935-1939) has tended to focus on productions. And while there is no shortage of those – roughly 1200 staged across the country – the Project’s government administrators rarely funded Black-authored work. As Dossett shows however, “Black performance communities” wrote, revised, and debated plays, “engendering freedom” in the creation of Black manuscripts.

The leap is a fixture in Black performance histories, but in the FTP archives, Dossett finds new variations, whether in a scene of a Black workers’ uprising that prompted vaudevillian Bill Robinson to (literally) bound from his seat to the stage (Ch. 1) or in a drama of Haitian self-liberation (Ch. 5). Some of the plays Dossett explores were produced (e.g. Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog), and others were not (e.g. Hughes Allison’s Panyared). Each faced constraints in the FTP’s tightly-controlled bureaucracy, but each, like Primus’ leap, made space for radical Black thought.

Dossett’s analysis of Black Living Newspapers (Ch. 2) was especially vivid – for me, no doubt, because this is a body of work I have been researching myself, and because I am a white scholar seeking an ethical relationship with Black performance archives and their constituents. In Dossett’s analysis, Black artists used Living Newspapers to critique and refract white gazes and white historiography. They sharply diverged from the white Living Newspapers that the FTP staged, plays like One-Third of a Nation and Power, which advocated New Deal issues like public housing and public utilities.

Inspired by Russian and German agitprop, Living Newspapers were full-length plays about current social issues. In a New York-based unit dedicated to the form, journalists and theatre-makers worked side-by-side to create some of the FTP’s most controversial original works. Black playwrights Abram Hill and John Silvera were based in New York, but employed by a different unit: The FTP’s Playreading Bureau. There, Emmett Lavery would “supervise” their creation of Liberty Deferred, a Living Newspaper about African-American life and civil rights.

Whereas white Living Newspapers earnestly presented facts and figures, Liberty Deferred satirized the form’s attempts at solidarity through social realism. In One-Third of a Nation, an earnest, white “Little Man” bore witness to the scourge of slum-dwelling; in Liberty Deferred, a Black couple critiqued white spectators who had “blinders attached to their eyes” (104).  In 1935the “Great American Public” was a heterogeneous group of citizens; in Liberty Deferred, it was the lone figure of Jim Crow. Liberty’s most powerful scene was set in “Lynchotopia,” a purgatory for victims of lynching. There, a glib “Keeper of Records” tallied up the year’s deaths and in biting satire, exposed the total inadequacy of numbers and statistics to address a culture of racialized violence.

Dossett traces the development of Liberty Deferred over 1937 and 1938 to show how Hill and Silvera leapt passed Lavery’s attempts to soften their critiques. Through multiple revisions, they retained the device of white spectators and Black critics, despite Lavery’s suggestion that they dramatize, instead, a benevolent history teacher and his eager Black schoolchildren (110). The creative differences here are particularly striking because Living Newspapers had an explicit mission to educate, and Lavery’s discomfort exposes tacit rules around who could be educated by whom. Eventually, Lavery deemed the play not ready for production, and turned his attention elsewhere. Yet Dossett’s vivid analysis shows that though Lavery failed to make space for Hill and Silvera, their work nonetheless “devised the techniques to build black culture anew” (83).

Radical Black Theatre enriches New Deal and FTP history primarily by assembling and spotlighting an overlooked archive. Dossett has meticulously compiled drafts of unpublished, often undated manuscripts, scattered across different collections. But her book makes some other, subtler contributions too. First, the idea of “the leap” challenges historians to think capaciously about what constitutes “making space” for radical Black art. Recently, my own research has taken me into the institutional workings of the Living Newspaper unit in New York, where I have learned that once topics were approved, lead dramatists were equipped with teams of up to 25 researchers, along with dramatists and artistic consultations. By contrast, while Silvera and Hill were tasked with creating a Living Newspaper on a topic endorsed by FTP administrators, they were never afforded the team of collaborators their white counterparts enjoyed. Rather, working alone under Lavery’s supervision, they were simultaneously reporters and sources, dramatists and dramaturgs. It is provocative to consider how Liberty Deferred might have continued to develop if space had been made for them in the form of sustained collaborators. At the same time, it is worth considering how Hill and Silvera made use of the state bureaucracy that, in many ways, hampered them. In devising Liberty Deferred, Hill and Silvera conducted considerable research on the history of Black theatre, much of which would be preserved in FTP archives.

If Dossett’s work exposes institutional constraints, it also presses beyond the measures and metrics that institutions prescribe. There is no shortage of data on the FTP’s effects. As a Depression-era relief effort sponsored by the state, it produced copious box office records, employee data, and newspaper clippings. Defenders and critics alike cite the Project’s $5 million budget, its 12,000-person workforce, its 30 million spectators across the country. These “measurable” impacts have carried over from FTP administration to FTP historiography. Indeed, Emily Klein notes that National Director Hallie Flanagan’s 1940 memoir “signals an evaluative managerial mode in which welfare-state capitalism’s demands to quantify and assess labor seem to presage the later forms of performance review and assessment intensified under neoliberalism” (194). But in her close attention to unproduced works, Dossett foregrounds cultural contributions that resist measurement.

Now, as Americans face another Depression, and contemplate a “new New Deal,” Dosset’s approach is timely. Not only does it resist neoliberal assessments of impact, it also resists New Deal nostalgia. Historians and political leaders, especially white liberals, have mythologized the New Deal as an era of unprecedented solidarity and social progress. But as Richard Iton so powerfully explained in Solidarity Bluesracism and racial constructs “unmade” the American left from its very beginnings (1), and especially in the New Deal era. Illustrating Iton’s point, even as she focuses on Black creativity, Dossett shows how the FTP perpetuated anti-Black racism. Many FTP administrators, however “progressive,” dismissed the interests of racialized people in the name of solidarity, assuming that what was relevant to white workers would be relevant to all.

By grappling with racism and anti-racism within the FTP, Black Radical Theatre issues a pertinent reminder that coalition cannot be achieved through erasure. Abram Hill learned this first-hand.  By way of conclusion, then, I want to consider some words he offered about the American Negro Theatre, an organization he founded after the FTP was dismantled:

We were really trying to reach within ourselves and say that if the theatre as it exists now is not to our liking, we’re going to try and make it so. We didn’t even use the word relevant at that time. We said meaningful and significant to the people who would in turn support us because we were giving them a lift and projecting the Negro as a real human being (147).

It is striking that as he leapt into his new role outside of the FTP, Hill rejected imperatives to create theatre that was “relevant” – which is to say, theatre that was deemed consistent with white, dominant culture. Recognizing that relevance for some meant “deferral” for others, Hill articulated distinctive standards for making art. Radical Black Theatre is a valuable engagement with his search for meaning and significance. By spotlighting Black radical creation, it makes space for important reassessments of New Deal history.

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Jordana Cox

Jordana Cox is an Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Waterloo whose scholarship bridges communication studies, performance history, and the public humanities. Her current focus is the relationship between news and theatrical performance in American public culture; she is at work on a book project called Staged News: The Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspapers in New York, 1935-9. Her writing appears in Theatre Survey, Performing the Secular: Religion, Representation, and Politics (eds. Milija Gluhovic and Jisha Menon), and the Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas (eds. Bosher, Macintosh, McConnell and Rankine). In conjunction with her research on political performance, Jordana has a keen interest in community-engaged teaching and public programming. Prior to joining Waterloo in 2017, she was the Postdoctoral Fellow in Public Humanities at the University of Richmond (2016-17), and the Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Florida’s Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere (2015-16). Cox earned an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama with a Graduate Certificate in Rhetoric and Public Culture from Northwestern University (2015).