Global Theatre: 1945 to 2000
African American Theatre

Text...
         Wilson and Goldfarb. Theatre: The Lively Art, 7th edition: Chapter 16, pages 380 - 382.

Plays...
         Imamu Amiri Baraka. The Dutchman, Slave Ship
         Lorraine Hansberry. Raisin in the Sun


1. Define African-American (or Black) Theatre.

Black actors performing material written by black playwrights for a primarily black audience.

2. What is the importance of the African Grove Theatre?


James Hewlett as Richard III
The African Company performing in the African Grove Theatre is considered the first formal black theatre company in America. Organized in Lower Manhattan by William Brown (manager) and James Hewlett (leading actor) during the 1820-21 season, the company performed a primarily Shakespearean repertory in a small 300 seat house. On this stage Hewlett became the first black actor to perform the title role in Shakespeare's Othello; Ira Aldridge (1806-1867), America's first major black Shakespearean actor, made his debut; and The Drama of King Shotaway (1823) by manager William Brown, believed to be the first play written and performed by an African-American, was presented. The company became so popular that management "graciously made a partition at the back of the house for the accommodation of the whites." The theatre was closed in 1827 after several white rowdies "out for a lark brought disorder and wanton mischief."

3. What options did black actors have during the 19th century?

After the close of the African Grove Theatre, black performers had only three options.
  1. They could give up their profession and perform only with amateur groups,
  2. They could play the servant roles ("darkies") in white acting companies, or
  3. They could travel to Europe and perform the classic repertory with the major European acting companies.

4. What black characters existed in western drama?

In medieval Christmas pageants, an African figure was often cast as one of the three wise men who came to worship the infant Jesus. During the English Renaissance, in plays like Shakespeare's Othello and Titus Andronicus, the black man (a Moor) often appeared as a heroic figure. But by the late 17th century, the noble king was replaced by the slave and the loyal "darkie" servant. Othello became Step 'N' Fetchit, a slow, lazy, dim witted, comic servant.

5. Who were the major black American playwrights?

Between the end of the 19th century, and the middle of the 20th century, a number of shows, primarily musical in nature, were developed by black writers. A Trip to Coontown (1898) by Bob Cole and William Johnson is considered the first black musical. In the first decade of this century, two comedians: Bert Williams (1876-1922) and George Walker (?-1909) presented Broadway productions of In Dahomey (1902) and Abyssinia (1906). In 1921, Shuffle Along by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, introduced "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way" into the popular culture. During the 1920s Willis Richardson's The Chip Woman's Fortune (1923) and Don't Judge by Appearances (1925) by Garland Anderson, both non musical, had Brodway productions.


Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry's (1930-1965), first work A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was conceived as "a social drama about Negroes that [would] be good art." The Broadway production, which starred Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier, was the first Broadway show staged by a black director: Lloyd Richards and the first script by a black writer to win the Drama Critic Circle Award for Best Play. Her success laid the ground work for the explosion of black drama that would appear on New York stages during the turbulent 1960's and 70's.


Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka (1934- ), the poet, writer, political activist and teacher formerly known as LeRoi Jones, came to prominance with the Off-Broadway production of The Dutchman (1964), which featured a showdown between a decent black youth and a lascivious white temptress . This was followed by two one-act plays: "The Slave" and "The Toilet" in 1965 and Slave Ship in 1970. In 1965 Bakara opened the short lived Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School in Harlem. After BART/S closed, he established Spirithouse in Newark, NJ. Both ventures emphasised the theatre, music, art, and poetry of the Black urban community.

      Performers?

Through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, black characters, both noble rulers and comic servant, were played by white actors, often time in "black face." In the early twentieth century, black performers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949), Lincoln "Step 'N Fetchit" Perry (1902-1985) and Eddie "Rocherster" Anderson (1905-1977) were usally singers, dancers, or commedians.


Ira Aldridge as Aaron in Titus Andronicus
Ira Aldridge (18071867) was an African-American actor who made his career largely on the London and European stage. His first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Grove Theatre in New York. He debuted as Rolla in Pizzaro and went on to play Romeo and Hamlet.Confronted with the discrimination black actors faced in the United States, he emigrated to England, where he began work as a dresser. Later he would perform scenes from Othello that stunned the London reviewers. One critic wrote, "In Othello (Aldridge) delivers the most difficult passages with a degree of correctness that surprises the beholder." In 1825 he had top billing at London's Coburg Theatre performing Oronoko in A Slave's Revenge, the title role in Shakespeare's Othello and Richard III, and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In 1831 he played Dublin, Ireland and in 1852 he toured continental Europe: Germany, Hungary, Serbia and Russia. He became a British citizen in 1863.


Charles Gilpin
Charles Gilpin (1879-1930). was one of the founding members of the Lafayette Players (1914-1932), a black stock company in Harlem. In 1919 he was cast as Curtis, a preacher and former slave in the Broadway production of John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln. The peak of his career came the following year when he was picked to play the title role in O'Neill's expressionistic drama: The Emperor Jones. But when the play was revived in 1924, the part was given to Paul Robeson who would also play Brutus Jones in the film (1933). Gilpin was the first 20th century black American to be widely accepted as a serious actor on the American mainstream stage.


Ethal Waters
Ethal Waters (1896-1977). Like many black performers, Ethal Waters is primarily remembered as a singer. Her first New York triumph was in a black musical : The Plantation Revue of 1924. This was followed by Africana (1929), Blackbirds (1930), Irving Berlin's As Thousand's Cheer (1933), Rhapsody in Black (1933), and At Home Abroad (1935). Her first dramatic Broadway performance was in Mamba's Daughter (1938) by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward. Most agree that her most memorable characterization, on both stage and screen, was Bernice Sadie Brown in Carson McCuller's A Member of the Wedding (Broadway: 1950). Her film list in the IMDb contains eleven titles produced between 1929 and 1959. The IMDb also hosts a MiniBiography.


Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the internationally known actor, singer, athlete (football), scholar, and political activist made his New York professional acting debut as the lead in O'Neill's All God's Children Got Wings (1924). Two years later, after a successful cross country tour, he presented a one-man concert of spirituals and Nego "work songs" at New York's Town Hall. In 1928, while living in England (1927-1939), he was cast as Joe, the stevedore who sings "Old Man River," in the London production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat. He will revive the role in New York (1932) and again in the Hollywood film (1936). "Old Man River" will become Robeson's signature song. As a Shakespearean actor, he is best remembered as Othello. He perfomed the role in London with Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndike and Ralph Richardson, and on Broadway in 1943 with Uta Hagen (Desdemona) and Jose Ferrer (Iago). According to the IMDb, Robeson was cast in thirteen films between 1925 and 1942. Because he was a strong supporter of the Soviet Union, his passport was withdrawn by the US State Department in the early 50's, and his name was added to the entertainment blacklist. Link to Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River" from the 1936 film version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Showboat.

6. What is color blind casting? Gender neutral casting?

Both color blind and gender neutral casting are popular in alternative theatre. Color blind casting means the director does not consider the race of the actor, or the charcter, when casting a show. An African American actor could be cast as Hamlet, an Asian American could be seen in the title role in Othello, and a white actor could sing "Old Man River" in Show Boat.

Gender neutral casting means the director does not consider the sex of the actor, or the charcter, when casting a show. A male could be cast as Lady Macbeth, a woman as Richard III, and a man could sing "I Enjoy Being a Girl" in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song.


E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at wildl@northern.edu.
Last updated: December 7, 2011
© 1995-2011 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401