African American theatre


African American theatre
   Black playwrights and managers were precious few in the United States before 1880, despite the brief triumph of the African Grove Theatre in New York in 1821, at which everything from Shakespeare's plays to new works by black writers provided African American actors with opportunities when there were no roles available in white theatres (and when demeaning depictions of black characters were habitually performed by white actors in blackface even in such classics as Fashion). Serious actors like Ira Aldridge, Morgan Smith, and Paul Molyneaux crossed the Atlantic to make their careers abroad. The first decades after the Civil War brought opportunities for professional black performers primarily in minstrel shows. Only gradually did African American performers move into legitimate theatre, the way paved by hundreds of amateur groups associated with schools and churches, and by solo platform readers like Emma Hatcher and Henrietta Vinton Davis, both in the 1880s.
   The modernist era gave rise to many big-name African American musical and variety performers beyond the scope of this book, including the Hyers sisters, Sam Lucas, Sissieretta Jones, Ernest Hogan, Bert Williams, George Walker, Aida Overton Walker, Bob Cole, Billy Johnson, Abbie Mitchell, and many more. However, those musical performers stimulated African American writers to create new material like Out of Bondage (1876) by Joseph Bradford for the Hyers sisters, Peculiar Sam; or, The Underground Railroad (1880) by Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, and Clorindy; or, The Origin of the Cakewalk (1897) by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar, as well as the musicals of Cole and Johnson and of Williams and Walker.
   With the founding of the Astor Place Company of Colored Tragedians in 1884 by actor J. A. Arneaux, the slow process of black actors finding legitimate dramatic challenges truly began. Black playwright William Edgar Easton won attention with two plays about the Haitian slave revolution, Desalines (1893) and Christophe (1911), both of which were produced by Henrietta Vinton Davis. Bob Cole organized an all-black stock company and school in New York at Worth's Museum. Some critics encouraged African Americans to establish resident companies as venues for new plays, and thus, in 1906, the Pekin Stock Company was established in Chicago (with later troupes formed in Cincinnati and Savannah) by Robert Motts. In 1912, New York's Negro Players started. Anita Bush headed the influential Lafayette Players from 1915.
   The earliest appearances of blacks in serious drama on Broadway came through the work of white playwrights, first in Ridgely Torrence's Three Plays for a Negro Theatre (1917), followed by Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920), produced by the Provincetown Players and starring Charles Gilpin, who was later replaced in the role by Paul Robeson. Robeson also appeared in O'Neill's controversial miscegenation play, All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924). Other white writers of black drama include Paul Green, whose In Abraham's Bosom (1926) won the Pulitzer Prize and provided an outstanding role for Rose McClendon. Du-bose and Dorothy Heyward's Porgy (1927) and Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures* (1930) similarly featured African American subject matter and mostly black casts. Appearances (1925) by Garland Anderson marked the first Broadway production of a legitimate drama by an African American writer. Black poets and novelists, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston,* and Richard Wright,* led the way for black playwrights in the 1920s and 1930s.
   See also Harlem Renaissance.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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