Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
actors graphic
Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Musicals
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

A Voice of Their Own

African-American Playwrights

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 what’s about me—
But someday somebody’ll
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 it’ll be
Me myself!

Yes, it’ll 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

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, Baldwin’s 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 Actor’s Studio, Baldwin’s play opened at the Anta Theatre.

 

The Actors Studio, Inc. Presents… “Blues for Mister Charlie.” Playbill for Anta Theatre. [New York]: Playbill, [1964].

From the Papers of Sarah-Patton Boyle.

 

Carbon copy of typed letter from Sarah-Patton Boyle to James Baldwin. 29 May 1964.
From the Papers of Sarah-Patton Boyle.

 

Sarah-Patton Boyle, a Charlottesville civil rights leader, writes to Baldwin, praising the production of Blues for Mister Charlie.

 

Amiri Baraka

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.

 

Jones, LeRoi [Imamu Amiri Baraka]. Dutchman and The Slave. New York: Morrow Quill, 1964.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Jones, LeRoi [Imamu Amiri Baraka]. Arm Yourself, or Harm Yourself! A Message of Self-Defense to Black Men! [Newark, N.J.]: Jihad Publication, [1960s].
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Baraka, [Imamu] Amiri. What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production? Playbill. [New York: Anti-Imperialist Cultural Union, 1978?].

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Lorraine Hansberry

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. Hansberry’s 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.

 

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random, 1959.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Langston Hughes

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 Hansberry’s 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 1940s—The Suitcase Theater in Harlem, the Negro Art Theater in Los Angeles, and the Skyloft Players in Chicago.

 

Stella Holt Presents the Joshua Shelley Production of Langston Hughes “Simply Heavenly;” A Folk Comedy with Music, Based upon His Novel “Simple Takes a Wife.” Playbill for the 85th Street Playhouse. [New York: 85th Street Playhouse, ca. 1958.] Autographed by Langston Hughes.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Hughes, Langston. Tambourines to Glory. Moon Outside My Window. Music by Jobe Huntley. New York: Chappell, 1964.
Purchased with the Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund.

 

The Ogunquit Playhouse… Presents World Premiere of “Just Around the Corner”… Lyrics by Langston Hughes. Playbill for the Manhattan Theatre Colony. [New York: n.p., 1950]. With autograph annotations, signed, by Langston Hughes.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Autographed photograph of Langston Hughes. 2 October 1935.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Ntozake Shange

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 women’s 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 Shange’s plays, poetry, and fiction, the African-American woman has found a strong and resounding voice.

 

Shange, Ntozake [Pauline Williams]. for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Albert H. and Shirley Small Special Collections Library
University of Virginia
PO Box 400110
Charlottesville, VA 22903-4110
ph: 434.924.3025  |  fax: 434.924.3143
Credits | Comments |  Special Collections
Library Home | Search the Library Web
Maintained by: mssbks@virginia. edu
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010
© The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia