KET Arts


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Black Women Playwrights

Act II: Pioneers and Landmarks

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930) has been called the "literary foremother" of African-American women writers. She lived in Boston and performed in her family's minstrel troupe, which was one of several black companies that toured after the Civil War. In 1879, Hopkins produced a musical play, Peculiar Sam, Or the Underground Railroad. The play is interesting in the way Hopkins uses the conventions of the minstrel show-broad dialect, humor, song and dance-to deal with serious subjects in a satirical way. The main character provides a lot of sly, ironic comedy. Sam is called "pecoolar" because he has strange fantasies that include escaping to Canada.

In 1916, Angelina Weld Grimke's Rachel was performed in Washington, D.C., then the most vigorous center of African-American cultural life. Rachel was produced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. On the initiative of DuBois, the NAACP had established a drama committee to develop plays by black writers. Grimke (1880-1958) had studied theater at Howard. Her play was written, at least partially, as a response to D.W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. Rachel is considered the first full-length drama production with a black playwright, director, producer, and cast.

The play is a drama of the black middle class. Rachel Loving is an intelligent, sensitive young woman. Though her family escaped from the Deep South and now lives in New York, she comes to realize she can never escape from racial oppression. She and her brother are educated, but can't find jobs for which they're qualified. After much stress and disappointment, Rachel suffers a mental breakdown and vows to never to marry or conceive. She rejects a proposal from a man she loves because she doesn't want to bring children into a racist world that she hates.

The play set off much debate among black intellectuals and leaders, with some criticizing it as too propagandistic to be effective drama. Though clumsy and filled with long, overwrought speeches, Rachel is important historically, and it prompted many other women playwrights to write dramas of social protest.

The black person's obligation to a segregated society was probed in several dramas of the period. Nearly 738, 000 black men were inducted during World War I. Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918) by Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875-1935), questions briefly whether black soldiers should risk their lives for a segregated nation. Aftermath (1919), by Mary P. Burrill (1884-1946), tells the story of a black veteran who comes back to rural South Carolina. The veteran learns that while he was fighting in France his father was lynched by a white mob. He grabs his service revolver and leaves home to settle the score. "This ain't no time fu' preachers or prayers," he shouts. "You mean to tell me I mus' let them w'ite devuls send me miles erway to suffer an' be shot up fu' the freedom of people I ain't nevah seen, while they're burning and killin' my folks here at home! To Hell with 'em!"

Many blacks who had served in the war believed a show of patriotism would bring social and legal reform. Those hopes were smashed, and Burrill's angry play anticipated the race riots that broke out across the country during the summer of 1919.

Plays by black women also attacked such social ills as poverty, ignorance, superstition, the lack of access to information about birth control, and lynching. According to one study, there were 3,589 lynchings in the United States between 1882 and 1927. Georgia Douglas Johnson, the most prolific playwright of the Washington group, wrote several dramas about lynching, including A Sunday Morning in the South (1925), Safe and Blue-Eyed Black Boy, both from the 1930s. In the first play, Johnson attacks religious hypocrisy. A white judge refuses to leave his church service, even though that act would have saved a young black man from a lynch mob.

May Miller (1899-1995) takes an unusual approach in Nails and Thorns (1933). She focuses on a white sheriff who has arrested a mentally handicapped black man. The sheriff's wife worries that the prisoner might not be safe in the jail, but the sheriff insists that security is adequate. After a mob breaks in and kills the prisoner, the sheriff's family disintegrates with revulsion and guilt.

In The Purple Flower, Marita Bonner (1899-1971) uses a surrealistic style to create an allegory of despair about African-American life. Characters called the Sundry White Devils with horns that "glow red all the time-now with blood-now with eternal fire-now with deceit-now with unholy desire," prevent another group of characters called the Us's from climbing the hill of Somewhere to reach the purple flower of the title, a flower as big as a tree, that represents life lived at its fullest. Only violence, the play concludes, will earn the attention and respect of the White Devils; only blood will allow the Us's to climb the hill. With its poetic surrealism, The Purple Flower prefigures the work of Adrienne Kennedy, who broke from realism in the 1960s.

Women playwrights also looked at African-American culture. In Tom-Tom (1932), Shirley Graham (1896-1977) created an opera with African music that traces two centuries of African-American life. May Miller and Georgia Douglas Johnson wrote plays about black historical figures, primarily intended for student audiences.

Other works dissected contemporary black society. Color Struck, the first of some 20 plays written by Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), depicts a dark-skinned woman who becomes obsessed by the fear her lover might be tempted by women with lighter complexions.

Miscegenation is dealt with in other plays, including Johnson's tragicomedy Blue Blood (1926). In the play, two women whose light-skinned son and daughter are about to be married discover their children have a common father, the rich white man who raped their mothers.

The most consistently comedic voice of women playwrights during this period belonged to Eulalie Spence (1894-1981). Spence wrote a dozen plays, most of them comedies set in a closely-observed Harlem populated by characters who are authentically black, but whose stories are driven by love triangles and other universal entanglements rather than by specific racial problems. Fool's Errand (1927), for example, looks at the social pecking order of a black church, and Hot Stuff (1927) depicts a society in which everyone has a con game going. Among Spence's more serious plays is a mystery, Her (1927), that builds suspense in the interplay between black religion and black superstition.

Spence wasn't part of the Washington group, but lived in New York, where she had been educated. She rejected the idea of "a play to be read," arguing that notion was absurd, like "the song to be read, not sung, and the canvas to be described, not painted," and she worked hard on the practical business of getting her work staged. Though Spence respected DuBois and belonged to his Krigwa Players, she rejected his ideas about theater used for propaganda. Born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies, Spence said she lacked the African-American background needed to write plays about oppression. But there were artistic reasons for this position, as she made clear in a 1928 magazine article where she argued that plays are not sermons; that would-be artists of the theater can't escape the necessity of being artful, and their plays live most truly on a stage in front of an audience that isn't a captive audience. Spence's views anticipated shifts in African-American theater that took place during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

In a way that seemed to parallel black migration, the consciousness of African-American theater moved northward, and some women playwrights from Washington were part of the transition. In 1936, Shirley Graham became the director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, bringing new energy into its productions, which included Theodore Ward's Big White Fog. Zora Neale Hurston-now better known her novels, stories, memoirs and research in black folklore-pursued her theatrical ambitions in New York, eventually working for the Federal Theatre Project there.

While New York consolidated its position as the center of African-American theater, the focus of black playwrights began to change. Plays became more urban in their settings, less concerned with themes associated with slavery, and a black theater that was recognizably modern began to emerge.

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