Jonathan Shandell provides the first in-depth study of the historic American Negro Theatre (ANT) and its lasting influence on American popular culture. Founded in 1940 in Harlem, the ANT successfully balanced expressions of African American consciousness with efforts to gain white support for the burgeoning civil rights movement. The theatre company featured innovative productions with emerging artists—Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, and many others—who would become giants of stage, film, and television. In 1944, the ANT made theatrical history by creating the smash hit Anna Lucasta, the most popular play with an African American cast ever to perform on Broadway. Starting from a shoestring budget, the ANT grew into one of the most important companies in the history of African American theatre. Though the group folded in 1949, it continued to shape American popular culture through the creative work of its many talented artists.
Examining oral histories, playbills, scripts, production stills, and journalistic accounts, Shandell gives us the most complete picture to date of the theatre company by analyzing well-known productions alongside groundbreaking and now-forgotten efforts. Shedding light on this often-overlooked chapter of African American history, which fell between the New Negro Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, Shandell reveals how the ANT became a valued community institution for Harlem—an important platform for African American artists to speak to racial issues—and a trailblazer in promoting integration and interracial artistic collaboration in the U.S. In doing so, Shandell also demonstrates how a small amateur ensemble of the 1940s succeeded in challenging, expanding, and transforming how African Americans were portrayed in the ensuing decades. The result is a fascinating and entertaining examination that will be of interest to scholars and students of African American and American studies and theatre history, as well as popular culture enthusiasts.
Black Movements analyzes how artists and activists of recent decades reference earlier freedom movements in order to imagine and produce a more expansive and inclusive democracy. The post–Jim Crow, post–apartheid, postcolonial era has ushered in a purportedly color blind society and along with it an assault on race-based forms of knowledge production and coalition formation. Soyica Diggs Colbert argues that in the late twentieth century race went “underground,” and by the twenty-first century race no longer functioned as an explicit marker of second-class citizenship.
The subterranean nature of race manifests itself in discussions of the Trayvon Martin shooting that focus on his hoodie, an object of clothing that anyone can choose to wear, rather than focusing on structural racism; in discussions of the epidemic proportions of incarcerated black and brown people that highlight the individual’s poor decision making rather than the criminalization of blackness; in evaluations of black independence struggles in the Caribbean and Africa that allege these movements have accomplished little more than creating a black ruling class that mirrors the politics of its former white counterpart. Black Movements intervenes in these discussions by highlighting the ways in which artists draw from the past to create coherence about blackness in present and future worlds.
Through an exploration of the way that black movements create circuits connecting people across space and time, Black Movements offers important interventions into performance, literary, diaspora, and African American studies.
Black Theater Is Black Life fills a critical gap in the history of African American culture in Chicago. Through interviews with prominent producers, directors, choreographers, designers, dancers, and actors, Young and Zabriskie create a portrait of a diverse, dynamic artistic community between 1970 and 2010. They frame this history with helpful guides, including a chronology of key events, a glossary of names, and an appendix of leading performing arts institutions in Chicago.
Blacktino Queer Performance
E. Patrick Johnson and Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, editors Duke University Press, 2016 Library of Congress PN1590.G39B533 2016
Staging an important new conversation between performers and critics, Blacktino Queer Performance approaches the interrelations of blackness and Latinidad through a stimulating mix of theory and art. The collection contains nine performance scripts by established and emerging black and Latina/o queer playwrights and performance artists, each accompanied by an interview and critical essay conducted or written by leading scholars of black, Latina/o, and queer expressive practices. As the volume's framing device, "blacktino" grounds the specificities of black and brown social and political relations while allowing the contributors to maintain the goals of queer-of-color critique. Whether interrogating constructions of Latino masculinity, theorizing the black queer male experience, or examining black lesbian relationships, the contributors present blacktino queer performance as an artistic, critical, political, and collaborative practice. These scripts, interviews, and essays not only accentuate the value of blacktino as a reading device; they radiate the possibilities for thinking through the concepts of blacktino, queer, and performance across several disciplines. Blacktino Queer Performance reveals the inevitable flirtations, frictions, and seductions that mark the contours of any ethnoracial love affair.
Contributors. Jossiana Arroyo, Marlon M. Bailey, Pamela Booker, Sharon Bridgforth, Jennifer Devere Brody, Cedric Brown, Bernadette Marie Calafell, Javier Cardona, E. Patrick Johnson, Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, John Keene, Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, D. Soyini Madison, Jeffrey Q. McCune Jr., Andreea Micu, Charles I. Nero, Tavia Nyong'o, Paul Outlaw, Coya Paz, Charles Rice-González, Sandra L. Richards, Matt Richardson, Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, Celiany Rivera-Velázquez, Tamara Roberts, Lisa B. Thompson, Beliza Torres Narváez, Patricia Ybarra, Vershawn Ashanti Young
In Bodies in Dissent Daphne A. Brooks argues that from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, black transatlantic activists, actors, singers, and other entertainers frequently transformed the alienating conditions of social and political marginalization into modes of self-actualization through performance. Brooks considers the work of African American, Anglo, and racially ambiguous performers in a range of popular entertainment, including racial melodrama, spectacular theatre, moving panorama exhibitions, Pan-Africanist musicals, Victorian magic shows, religious and secular song, spiritualism, and dance. She describes how these entertainers experimented with different ways of presenting their bodies in public—through dress, movement, and theatrical technologies—to defamiliarize the spectacle of “blackness” in the transatlantic imaginary.
Brooks pieces together reviews, letters, playbills, fiction, and biography in order to reconstruct not only the contexts of African American performance but also the reception of the stagings of “bodily insurgency” which she examines. Throughout the book, she juxtaposes unlikely texts and entertainers in order to illuminate the complicated transatlantic cultural landscape in which black performers intervened. She places Adah Isaacs Menken, a star of spectacular theatre, next to Sojourner Truth, showing how both used similar strategies of physical gesture to complicate one-dimensional notions of race and gender. She also considers Henry Box Brown’s public re-enactments of his escape from slavery, the Pan-Africanist discourse of Bert Williams’s and George Walker’s musical In Dahomey (1902–04), and the relationship between gender politics, performance, and New Negro activism in the fiction of the novelist and playwright Pauline Hopkins and the postbellum stage work of the cakewalk dancer and choreographer Aida Overton Walker. Highlighting the integral connections between performance and the construction of racial identities, Brooks provides a nuanced understanding of the vitality, complexity, and influence of black performance in the United States and throughout the black Atlantic.
Coloring Whiteness pays homage to the ways that African American artists and performers have interrogated tropes and mythologies of whiteness to reveal racial inequalities, focusing on comedy sketches, street theater, visual art, video, TV journalism, and voice-over work since 1964. By investigating enactments of whiteness—from the use of white makeup and suggestive masks, to literary motifs and cultural narratives regarding “white” characteristics and qualities—Faedra Chatard Carpenter explores how artists have challenged commonly held notions of racial identity. Through its layered study of expressive culture, her book considers how artistic and performance strategies are used to “color” whiteness and complicate blackness in our contemporary moment.
Utilizing theories of performance and critical race studies, Coloring Whiteness is also propelled by Carpenter’s dramaturgical sensibilities. Her analysis of primary performance texts is informed not only by traditional print and visual materials, but also by her interviews with African American theater artists, visual artists, and cultural critics. The book is an invaluable contribution to the fields of theater and performance studies, African American studies, cultural studies, critical race studies, and American studies.
In Darkening Mirrors, Stephanie Leigh Batiste examines how African Americans participated in U.S. cultural imperialism in Depression-era stage and screen performances. A population treated as second-class citizens at home imagined themselves as empowered, modern U.S. citizens and transnational actors in plays, operas, ballets, and films. Many of these productions, such as the 1938 hits Haiti and The "Swing" Mikado recruited large casts of unknown performers, involving the black community not only as spectators but also as participants. Performances of exoticism, orientalism, and primitivism are inevitably linked to issues of embodiment, including how bodies signify blackness as a cultural, racial, and global category. Whether enacting U.S. imperialism in westerns, dramas, dances, songs, jokes, or comedy sketches, African Americans maintained a national identity that registered a diasporic empowerment and resistance on the global stage. Boldly addressing the contradictions in these performances, Batiste challenges the simplistic notion that the oppressed cannot identify with oppressive modes of power and enact themselves as empowered subjects. Darkening Mirrors adds nuance and depth to the history of African American subject formation and stage and screen performance.
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.
Racial politics and capitalism found a way to blend together in 1970s Chicago in the form of movie theaters targeted specifically toward African Americans. In From Sweetback to Super Fly, Gerald Buttersexamines the movie theaters in Chicago’s Loop that became, as he describes them, “black spaces” during the early 1970s with theater managers making an effort to gear their showings toward the African American community by using black-themed and blaxploitation films.
Butters covers the wide range of issues that influenced the theaters, from changing racial patterns to the increasingly decrepit state of Chicago’s inner city and the pressure on businesses and politicians alike to breathe life into the dying area. Through his extensive research, Butters provides an in-depth look at this phenomenon, delving into an area that has not previously been explored. His close examination of how black-themed films were marketed and how theaters showing these films tried to draw in crowds sheds light on race issues both from an industrial standpoint on the side of the theaters and movie producers, as well as from a cultural standpoint on the side of the moviegoers and the city of Chicago as a whole. Butters provides a wealth of information on a very interesting yet underexamined part of history, making From Sweetback to Super Fly a supremely enjoyable and informative book.
Honorable Mention, 2016 Errol Hill Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship in African American Theater, Drama and/or Performance
Based on a vast amount of archival research, Adrienne Macki Braconi’s illuminating study of three important community-based theaters in Harlem shows how their work was essential to the formation of a public identity for African Americans and the articulation of their goals, laying the groundwork for the emergence of the Civil Rights movement. Macki Braconi uses textual analysis, performance reconstruction, and audience reception to examine the complex dynamics of productions by the Krigwa Players, the Harlem Experimental Theatre, and the Negro Theatre of the Federal Theatre Project. Even as these theaters demonstrated the extraordinary power of activist art, they also revealed its limits. The stage was a site in which ideological and class differences played out, theater being both a force for change and a collision of contradictory agendas. Macki Braconi’s book alters our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance, the roots of the Civil Rights movement, and the history of community theater in America.
In 1936 Orson Welles directed a celebrated all-black production of Macbeth that was hailed as a breakthrough for African Americans in the theater. For over a century, black performers had fought for the right to perform on the American stage, going all the way back to an 1820s Shakespearean troupe that performed Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth, without relying on white patronage.
"Macbeth" in Harlem tells the story of these actors and their fellow black theatrical artists, from the early nineteenth century to the dawn of the civil rights era. For the first time we see how African American performers fought to carve out a space for authentic black voices onstage, at a time when blockbuster plays like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Octoroon trafficked in cheap stereotypes. Though the Harlem Renaissance brought an influx of talented black writers and directors to the forefront of the American stage, they still struggled to gain recognition from an indifferent critical press.
Above all, "Macbeth" in Harlem is a testament to black artistry thriving in the face of adversity. It chronicles how even as the endemic racism in American society and its theatrical establishment forced black performers to abase themselves for white audiences’ amusement, African Americans overcame those obstacles to enrich the nation’s theater in countless ways.
In 1904, political operator and gambling boss Robert T. Motts opened the Pekin Theater in Chicago. Dubbed the "Temple of Music," the Pekin became one of the country's most prestigious African American cultural institutions, renowned for its all-black stock company and school for actors, an orchestra able to play ragtime and opera with equal brilliance, and a repertoire of original musical comedies.
A missing chapter in African American theatrical history, Bauman's saga presents how Motts used his entrepreneurial acumen to create a successful black-owned enterprise. Concentrating on institutional history, Bauman explores the Pekin's philosophy of hiring only African American staff, its embrace of multi-racial upper class audiences, and its ready assumption of roles as diverse as community center, social club, and fundraising instrument.
The Pekin's prestige and profitability faltered after Motts' death in 1911 as his heirs lacked his savvy, and African American elites turned away from pure entertainment in favor of spiritual uplift. But, as Bauman shows, the theater had already opened the door to a new dynamic of both intra- and inter-racial theater-going and showed the ways a success, like the Pekin, had a positive economic and social impact on the surrounding community.
The first African American to head a branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), Regina Andrews led an extraordinary life. Allied with W. E. B. Du Bois, she fought for promotion and equal pay against entrenched sexism and racism. Andrews also played a key role in the Harlem Renaissance, supporting writers and intellectuals with dedicated workspace at her 135th Street Branch Library. After hours she cohosted a legendary salon that drew the likes of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Her work as an actress and playwright helped established the Harlem Experimental Theater.
Ethelene Whitmire's new biography offers the first full-length portrait of Andrews' activism, engagement with the arts of the Harlem Renaissance, and work with the NYPL.
Omi Osun Joni L. Jones provides the first full-length study of an artistic form, the theatrical jazz aesthetic, that draws on the jazz principles of ensemble—the break, the bridge, and the blue note. Theatrical Jazz: Performance, À??, and the Power of the Present Moment is a study of the use of jazz aesthetics in theatre as created by major practitioners of the form, giving particular attention to three innovative artists: Laurie Carlos, Daniel Alexander Jones, and Sharon Bridgforth.
Theatrical Jazz examines how artists are made and how artists make art. In charting their overlapping artistic genealogies, the book also discusses the work of veteran artists Aishah Rahman, Robbie McCauley, Sekou Sundiata, Ntozake Shange, and Erik Ehn, as well as the next generation of theatrical jazz innovators, Grisha Coleman, Walter Kitundu, Florinda Bryant, and Zell Miller III. Using autocritography as a primary methodology, the author draws on her role as performer, collaborator, audience/witness, and dramaturg in theatrical jazz, and her experiences with Yoruba spiritual traditions, to excavate the layers and nuances of this performance form. Jones’s use of performative writing, a blend of intellectual, artistic, and sensory experiences, allows scholars and students not only to read but also to “hear” the principles of theatrical jazz on the page.
The essays in Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theater as if Gender and Race Matter argue that directing, as it has been taught and handed down over the years, has worked in the service of a body of dramatic literature that has routinely minimized or distorted the lives of women, people of color, gay men, and lesbians. The book’s contributors see directing not as an ideologically neutral set of skills, but as something that has served historically to preserve existing forms of authority.
What happens, then, when a feminist who directs for the theater decides that there is something called a feminist director, someone who sees her job as protesting and intervening in the existing system of representation? The contributors to this volume provide a wide range of answers, in original essays that disrupt traditional approaches of directing by showing how feminist theory might be applied in practice.
Essays and interviews by a wide variety of directors, scholars, and other theater specialists offer fresh new models for thinking about directing. The collection includes essays on African-American theater, feminist “classics,” and male directors working on feminist plays, as well as concrete suggestions for directing a variety of plays, from works by Shakespeare and Euripides to those by Caryl Churchill, Aishah Rahman, and Helene Cixous. The theoretical material, drawing from a wide range of contemporary critics and theorists, has been written with the director in mind, partly for the purpose of analyzing texts but also for inspiring creative directorial and design solutions.