KET Arts


Black Women Playwrights


The Emergence of the African-American Woman’s Voice in American Theater

Act I: Claiming the Stage

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,-

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

—Paul Laurence Dunbar

Writing in 1896, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar saw African-American life as essentially theatrical. Black people were forced to play roles. Because of slavery and its social and psychological legacies, they couldn’t voice their true feelings in public. They weren’t free to show their inner reality to the world.

Public depictions of blacks were left to others. In minstrel shows, vaudeville, and theater, they were represented by a range of type characters, including “Jim Crow,” the dim-witted bumpkin; “Jim Dandy,” the high-living sport; “Jezebel,” the wild woman of loose morals; “Mammy,” the devoted domestic; “Uncle,” the harmless old man full of stories; the “Brute Negro,” filled with rage and sexual power; and the “Tragic Mulatto,” crushed between races.

These types lived on with each technological advance—the phonograph, movies, radio, and television—but the growth of African-American theater also brought more deeply felt and complicated images of black life to the public. These have clashed with simplistic and racist depictions, and that struggle continues.

Women playwrights played an important role in the early development of African-American theater, but they haven’t received the recognition they deserve. Among the pioneers were Mary P. Burrill, Angelina Weld Grimke, May Miller, Shirley Graham, Marita Bonner, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Eulalie Spence.

As Kathy A. Perkins notes in Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays, before 1950 women writers contributed unique perspectives, bearing “the double burden of racism and sexism” and at times becoming the voices of a minority within a minority. They also stressed themes that might have been neglected otherwise.

“Neither the white or black male playwright,” writes Perkins, “could express the intense pain and fear a black woman experienced concerning her children—wondering, for instance, if the child that she carried for nine months would be sold into slavery, or be a son who might one day be lynched. Along with this excruciating pain, black women were also preoccupied with the safety of their husbands.”

They also knew the everyday burden of sustaining a family, the endless work of keeping things together and moving ahead. The black woman, wrote Zora Neale Hurston, is “the mule of the world.”

A third influence was more social, nurturing, and empowering. These women knew and encouraged one another, and some opened their homes to younger black writers, introducing them and their work and building artistic communities that laid the foundation for future achievement. For decades, Georgia Douglas Johnson (1886-1966) hosted the “S Street Salon,” her “halfway house” of free-flowing creativity.

Many of these women were more naturally poets, essayists, or teachers, but consciously turned to theater because of its ability to speak so directly to society. “Drama is a cohesive, communal art form,” says Barbara Lewis, a theater professor at the University of Kentucky. “When you consume a novel, you do it as an individual. When you consume a drama, you do it as a group, and there was a need for group solidarity, group definition, and group response.”

Perkins has documented that black women playwrights of the pre-1950 era wrote more than 60 published plays, along with many unpublished scripts. These playwrights had diverse talents and interests, but a few generalizations can be made. Most lived in Washington, DC. They were well educated, with Howard University or Oberlin College often figuring in their backgrounds. Another cultural landmark was Dunbar High School, where many taught. Most of their plays were published in magazines and were more often read than performed.

None of these woman could earn a living by writing plays, and most had no ambition in that direction. Though many had studied theater, on-the-boards experience was rare. When staged, their plays were seldom brought to life by professional actors, directors, and designers. Black professional talent was found mainly in commercial musicals and variety shows such as Shuffle Along, Chocolate Dandies, and Running Wild—successful productions, but ones that failed to add much depth to the public understanding of African-American life.

Black women playwrights were influenced by two different approaches to African-American theater, one initiated by the activist W.E.B. DuBois and the other favored by Montgomery Gregory and Alain Locke, both professors at Howard.

DuBois keenly understood the power of theater and saw it as a tool for social change. He wanted “race” or “propaganda” plays that focused on issues stemming from slavery and oppression. DuBois became more outspoken as public interest in African-American life increased after 1917, and white playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Ridgeley Torrence, and Paul Green began to create dramas about blacks. “The integrity of their intentions is unquestionable,” writes dramatist Ted Shine in Black Theater, U.S.A., “but they lacked a true knowledge of the black experience.” From 1918 to 1929, Shine notes, 20 plays on African-American themes were presented on Broadway, but only five were by black writers. In 1925, DuBois launched literary contests to encourage talent. The following year, he organized the Krigwa Players, which envisioned theater companies in different cities performing plays by black writers primarily for black audiences in their own neighborhoods.

In contrast to DuBois, Gregory and Locke of Howard University advocated “folk” plays without obvious messages. These plays would present artistically compelling images of African-American life to the widest possible audience. They founded the Howard Players and offered courses to give young blacks a professional foundation in theater.

The women playwrights of this period drank freely from both schools of thought—often studying under Gregory and Locke at Howard and gaining recognition in the literary contests and theater groups created by DuBois. (One of the playwrights, Shirley Graham, later married DuBois.) Traces of these differing approaches to theater can be found in their work, and in that of later black women playwrights, in the synthesis of political awareness with the depiction of everyday struggles and triumphs. Drawing on a range of influences and personal experiences, women writers have added their visions to the growth of African-American theater, which—as DuBois sensed—was intimately connected to the search for American-American identity.

“Blacks are a people who lived in circumscribed circumstances, rather like a constricted stage,” notes Barbara Lewis. “They lived their lives as a watched population. Theater became a natural form in which to work out those feelings. It’s almost poetic justice that the stage allows them to watch themselves, to push back the limitations and find a way out of their impingement. Theater is a way to create new space and light in another world.”