Speculative Black Theatre History

*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 Theatre Project production of Conjur’ Man Dies, 1936 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1959 examining the relationship between social and cultural movements Lorraine Hansberry asserted, “there’s an affirmative political mood and social mood in our country…I’d…like to see a parallel to it in terms of the culture of our country. I can see no reason in the world why the American theatre should be lined up on about six blocks on Broadway in New York City. I’d like to see a little agitation to get national theatre and other art programs in this country. So that the kids all over the United States can go see Shakespeare without thinking it’s a bore, you know, or Lorraine Hansberry or Eugene O’Neill.” 1 Hansberry’s comment calls forth the history that Kate Dossett’s Radical Black Theatre and the New Deal uncovers. While some may read Hansberry’s statement as anticipating the regional theatre movement that develops in the US in the 1960s, Dossett’s book offers us another historical possibility anchored by a methodology that attends to the specificity of theatre as a collaborative performing art. Given Dossett’s analysis, one could read Hansberry’s statement as an ushering forth of underground possibilities, waiting to be reanimated. Hansberry’s relationship with artists and activists of the Cultural Front (W.E.B. Du Bois, Alice Childress, Paul Robeson) encourages a speculative reading practice that also serves as one mode that Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal invites.

Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal explores the history of 1930s Black theatre produced through the support of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal included jobs for artists as a part of the (WPA). As Dossett notes, “The idea that the federal government paid unemployed black cultural producers to create theatre during America’s deepest recession may come as a surprise to many Americans. Arousing equally strong passions on the part of its supporters and opponents in the 1930s, the significance of this controversial theatre project was buried amid the ideological battles over the legacy of the New Deal in the early years of the Cold War” (2). During the Great Depression, understanding art as a communal good helped advance the work of hundreds of artists. As Dossett notes, however, Black people’s incorporation into the Federal Theatre Project depended on interracial theatre connections and a limited governmental definition of community.

Black artists did not let such restrictions curtail their efforts. Early in the book, Dossett recalls a roundtable conversation about the Black radical tradition published in the journal Small Axe. She recalls, “[Nikhil Pal] 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. It is not that the leap is oriented toward a pre-existing horizon, like democracy or freedom or emancipation. . . . The leap itself is an engendering of freedom, and it creates consequences in the world that actually really matter’” (32). The idea of the leap, of making room within already constrained contexts, of producing a new horizon that is yet visible to your audience, of carving out space, making a way of out no way, this is the work of the Black radical tradition and the history that Dossett takes up with regards to 1930s WPA Black theatre.

In using the leap as a guiding image, Dossett understands “the idea of radicalism, not so much as an end point, but rather as a place to begin. New insights are possible if we start with the premise that African Americans could be architects of a radical future in the middle decades of the twentieth century. New avenues of inquiry are opened if we understand black manuscripts as a valued site for carrying and enabling radical visions” (31). The content and method follows Dossett’s claim, foregrounding the artistic communities that Black artists built during the 1930s and using the manuscripts of plays, and not necessarily the final published versions, as a road map.

Dossett explains that examining manuscripts and not just published texts evidences a radical impulse at the heart of Black theatre making in the period. While previous studies either focus on the culminating production, and the white interlocutors that enabled it, of a play or its publication, Dossett foregrounds Black people’s creativity, vision, and investments by drawing attention to how a play changes during the developmental process. Plays are different from novels or poems because even after publication they can have defining productions that produce ways of understanding the play anew. Given the power dynamics at the heart of the Federal Theatre Project, Dossett explains, “Understanding the history of black manuscripts allows us to consider black dramas on their own ground and examine how they were developed by African American playwrights and black troupes, as well as the ways in which they were contested, revised, and reinterpreted by broader black performance communities in the 1930s and beyond” (20).

While Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal focuses on manuscripts, it does so to highlight how the wrangling over the texts produces performances and performance communities.

Following the brilliant work in Black studies of Daphne Brooks and Fred Moten, Dossett claims, “black performance was never reducible to the conditions of domination out of which it emerged. For if black performance and white spectatorship provided spaces for the enactment of white mastery, they also became sites of contest and resistance, where white power might be undone” (7). In the context of 1930s Federal Theatre Negro Units, writers, directors, actors, and designers worked together to intervene in existing social scripts for Blackness, changing how spectators looked at Black people and challenging the roles they were cast to play. Staging of looking and recasting Blackness are central threads of the manuscript.

The first two chapters of the book explore how African American theatre artists pushed generic boundaries in the 1930s to reposition Black people in cultural, social and historical contexts. Chapters three through five form the second half of the book and reconsider the nature and representation of Black heroic figures. Chapter five in particular, explores how the play Haiti challenges the idea of the defeated Black hero. Attending to the archive also enables Dossett to better account for the interlocking dynamics of race and gender. In chapter four she observes, “By foregrounding the responses of the local Black community, it can be clearly seen that it was the Negro Unit’s staging of gender and racial divisions within Black families and political movements, rather than communism, which made Big White Fog a provocative play in 1938 and a drama of enduring significance in American theatre history” (165).

Radical Black Theatre offers a method to engage with historical periods that seem devoid of Black radical practices by inviting us to look at the history of theatre in a different way. Rather than privileging a New York or London production or the published version of a play, Dossett considers theatre as a form or art perpetually in process. As a result, she may attend to the process itself as radical even if some of the results fall short of that vision. The manuscripts leap beyond the published and produced versions of the play, creating space for a radical future that may be taken up as we contend with the current existential crisis that threatens our theatres in 2020.

  1. Lorraine Hansberry interview with Studs Terkel, “Lorraine Hansberry discusses her play ‘A Raisin in the Sun.” https://studsterkel.wfmt.com/programs/lorraine-hansberry-discusses-her-play-raisin-sun Accessed August 8, 2019.
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Soyica Colbert

Soyica Diggs Colbert is the Idol Family Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University. She is the author of The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance and the Stage (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Black Movements: Performance and Cultural Politics (Rutgers University Press, 2017). Colbert edited the Black Performance special issue of African American Review (2012) and co-edited The Psychic Hold of Slavery (Rutgers University Press, 2016). She is currently working on two forthcoming book projects, a monograph, Becoming Free: An Intellectual Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, and a co-edited collection, Race and Performance After Repetition. Colbert has published articles in American Theatre, African American Review, Theatre Survey, Modern Drama, Boundary 2, South Atlantic Quarterly, Scholar and Feminist Online, and Theatre Topics and in the collections: Black Performance Theory, Contemporary African American Women Playwrights, and August Wilson: Completing the Cycle. Her research interests span the 19th-21st centuries, from Harriet Tubman to Beyoncé, and from poetics to performance. Follow her on Twitter @DrSoyica.