A Voice of Their Own
In the second stanza of his poem Note on the Commercial Theatre, Langston Hughes writes:
You also took my spirituals and gone.
You put me in Macbeth and Carmen Jones
And all kinds of Swing Mikados
And in everything but whats about me
But someday somebodyll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me
Black and beautiful
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon itll be
Yes, itll be me.
Hughes addresses the appropriation of black culture and the parallel stereotyping
of African Americans by a white theatrical tradition. The poem speaks to the fact
that, for approximately the first 150 years of American theatre, nearly all African-American
characters were created by white playwrights and often performed by white actors
in blackface. African-American playwrights did not have a voice in the popular
theatre of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nor did they have a legitimate
venue for any works that they may have created.
While several early African-American actors and playwrights found success in European theatres, those who remained in America were forced to conform to the expectations of white theatre audiences. Not until the latter half of the nineteenth century did African-American musical theatre movements begin to form. African-American minstrel troupes and writers started to create musicals that catered to African-American audiences that assembled in church halls, community centers, and small local theatres and auditoriums on the periphery of mainstream American theatre.
With the Harlem Renaissance in New York City in the 1920s, the surge and prominence of African-American artistic talent paved the way for African-American playwrights to emerge on the Broadway and Off-Broadway scene in the middle of the twentieth century. The American stage finally saw fully realized African-American characters and powerful portrayals of African-American life.
James Baldwin, the renowned African-American essayist and novelist, also wrote several plays, one of which was Blues for Mister Charlie. To escape the racism in America, Baldwin left his birthplace, Harlem, and spent most of his adult and literary life in Europe. Although physically distanced from his native country, his writings never strayed far from the struggles of his race in the United States.
Loosely based on the racially-motivated murder of fourteen-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi in 1955, Baldwins explosive drama, Blues, explores the racial conflicts in a small southern town confronted with the killing of an African-American boy and the subsequent trial of the white man who murdered him. First produced in 1964 in New York by the Actors Studio, Baldwins play opened at the Anta Theatre.
Sarah-Patton Boyle, a Charlottesville civil rights leader, writes to Baldwin,
praising the production of Blues for Mister Charlie.
Through his fiction, essays, poems, and plays, Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoi
Jones, has produced a body of work with a strong political message condemning
racial injustice and the oppression of African Americans in the United States.
His play Dutchman won the Village Voice OBIE Award for Best American Off-Broadway
Play for 1964. As the acknowledged leader of the Black Arts and Black Theatre
movements of the 1960s, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School
in Harlem in 1964. He promoted drama by African-American playwrights, about African-American
issues, performed for African-American audiences.
A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, marked the first Broadway play to be both written and directed by African Americans. The play tells of the emotional upheaval that an African-American family experiences when making the decision to move from a black ghetto apartment to a house in a white suburb. Hansberrys first play, this social drama won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play of 1959, making Hansberry the first woman and the first African American to win the award. Today A Raisin in the Sun remains one of the most performed plays in America by an African-American playwright. Hansberry went on to write several other plays and screenplays, but her death at the age of 35 cut short a promising literary career.
Noted poet, novelist, short-story writer, song lyricist, radio writer, columnist,
translator, lecturer, and playwright, Langston Hughes emerged as a central literary
figure during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Following the 1921 publication
of his first play, The Gold Piece, Hughes saw his success in the theatre
steadily increase. Mulatto, his play about miscegenation and revenge in
the early twentieth-century South, appeared on Broadway in 1935 and ran for 373
performances. With this number, Hughes could claim the record for the longest-running
Broadway play by an African American until Lorraine Hansberrys A Raisin
in the Sun overtook it in 1959. Another Hughes play, Simply Heaven,
based on his novel Simple Takes a Wife, reached Broadway in 1957. In this
work, Hughes also incorporated another of his creative talents by the writing
the song lyrics for the show. Hughes continued to be involved in the creation
of works for the theatre through the 1960s, culminating in his musical morality
play Tambourines to Glory. In addition to playwriting, Hughes fostered
the theatrical arts by founding three African-American dramatic groups during
the 1930s and 1940sThe Suitcase Theater in Harlem, the Negro Art Theater
in Los Angeles, and the Skyloft Players in Chicago.
Ntozake Shange (Pauline Williams) created an award-winning first play with
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf.
A collection of twenty poems that explore the realities and complexities of life
for seven African-American women, the play interweaves poetry, music, dance, and
drama to produce what Shange terms a choreopoem. First staged in a
womens bar in Berkeley, California, the play moved to New York in 1975.
It eventually appeared on Broadway, garnering resounding recognition and praise
and winning an OBIE Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Audience Development Committee
(Audelco) Award, and Mademoiselle Award in 1977. The play also received Tony,
Grammy, and Emmy award nominations. Through Shanges plays, poetry, and fiction,
the African-American woman has found a strong and resounding voice.