On April 5, 1917, Three Plays for a Negro Theater by Ridgely Torrence opened at the Garden Theatre in New York City. This performance was a monumental event in American stage history. Not only was this the first dramatic production to portray African American life beyond the cliché, it was also the first production on Broadway to feature an all-black cast. The morning after the three plays were performed, newspapers were filled with praise for the cast, crew, and playwright. Audience member W. E. B. Du Bois declared the show "epoch making." Despite such early critical acclaim, Three Plays for a Negro Theater closed before the end of the month and received little attention thereafter.
Why was a nation, so fascinated with firsts, able to forget these black actors and this production so quickly? It is this question that Susan Curtis addresses in The First Black Actors on the Great White Way.
Set against the backdrop of transforming theater conventions in the early 1900s and the war in 1917, this important study relates the stories of the actors, stage artists, critics, and many others—black and white—involved in this groundbreaking production. Curtis explores in great depth both the progress in race relations that led to this production and the multifaceted reasons for its quick demise.
Three Plays for a Negro Theater opened on the eve of the United States' entrance into World War I. Curtis attributes the early closure of the three plays to this coincidence, but she does not settle for so simple an explanation. Rather, she investigates the heightened national self-consciousness that followed the United States' entry into the war. America was ready to "make the world safe for democracy," but it was not fully ready to accept democracy and equality in its own culture.
The First Black Actors on the Great White Way is not simply a study of African American theater and its entrance into American culture. By focusing on a single event at a critical moment in history, Curtis offers a unique glimpse into race relations in early-twentieth-century American society. The experience of these pioneering artists reveals an unexplored aspect of the painfully slow evolution of racial equality.
A remarkable story about people who waged an extraordinary campaign against racism, The First Black Actors on the Great White Way will be of special interest to scholars of American studies, race relations, and cultural history, as well as the general reader.