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Black Women Playwrights

Act III. New Voices, Many Directions

From 1935 to 1939, the Negro units of the Federal Theatre Project-located in 22 cities across the country-provided work for black actors and opportunities for black playwrights, while perhaps urbanizing the sensibilities of those writers. After the Federal Theatre Project was shut down, Frederick O'Neal and Abram Hill brought together a group of dramatic artists to form a permanent black acting company in Harlem. The American Negro Theatre (ANT) became the most successful of many previous attempts that had been made to establish black theaters.

Sidney Poitier in Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Sidney Poitier in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun

For a decade, ANT produced 20 plays, more than half original, and furthered the careers of many actors, including Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. The company's most famous production, Anna Lucasta (1945), opened on Broadway, toured nationally for two years, and was made into a film.

Alice Childress (1920-1994), one of the original members of ANT, worked in the company as an actor, director and drama coach. Eventually she began writing plays. Born in South Carolina, raised in Harlem, Childress was a woman of the theater, a professional active in her union. In a career spanning five decades, Childress wrote 16 plays and created a significant body of work that opened doors for black women playwrights who followed. Her best writing shows the influence of her acting experience and stagecraft. Childress writes dialogue that is natural and effortless, beautifully paced, and her characters have a tangible, squirming humanity.

Florence, the first play Childress wrote, was directed by her and produced by ANT in 1950. Just a Little Simple (1950), based on a work by Langston Hughes, was the first play professionally produced by a black woman (Childress). Gold Through the Trees (1952) is about the black struggle for freedom in South Africa. Her other plays include: Wine in the Wilderness (1969), about class differences among blacks; Mojo (1970), a portrait of black marriage; and Sea Island Song (1977) and Gullah (1984), two plays set in her native South Carolina.

Trouble in Mind (1955), her first full-length work, won an Obie Award for best original off-Broadway play of the year, the first Obie received by a black woman. A backstage drama, Trouble in Mind is especially interesting in light of the history of blacks in American theater. During play rehearsals, Wiletta Mayer, a black actress, becomes uncomfortable with her role as a mother. Her lines don't ring true, and she comes to see that her character and the play's other black characters are little more than stereotypes concocted by the white playwright and the white director. The director is ostensibly liberal, but Wiletta's questions and complaints finally reveal his smug racism. As the play ends, it seems clear that Wiletta will lose her job, while the other black actors accept the director's authority and go on with the show.

Wedding Band (1966) is a masterpiece of nuance and character. The play tells the story of an interracial love affair in South Carolina during World War I. The ten-year relationship between Julia, a black woman, and Herman, a German-American baker, is like a forbidden weed growing up under layers of social and psychological concrete. Racism, ignorance, misunderstanding, pride, foolishness-all add their weight, but the weed won't die, not until one of them dies.

Between 1923 and 1946, seven black writers, all men, had plays produced on Broadway. In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry became the first black woman to have a play produced there. Her play, A Raisin in the Sun, is a classic of American theater. As a classic, the play reflects Hansberry's complexity and contradictions. It defies easy political interpretations, though many have been floated over the years.

In the play, Lena Younger wants to move her family into a white neighborhood, not because of an idealistic commitment to assimilation, but to get out of her "rat trap" of an apartment. The family's dreams are on a human scale, as are its strengths and weaknesses, struggles and generational conflicts. The simple desire for mobility-in their case, from one part of Chicago to another-brings the Youngers into conflict with seemingly intractable social forces. Are they up to the challenge? The play leaves that question unresolved.

"I sure hope you people know what you're getting into," says Lindner, the white man from the neighborhood who tries to buy the family off. The Youngers can't possibly know, as they leave their apartment. But they know themselves, and the audience knows them.

A Raisin in the Sun has suffered from its own success. The optimistic side of the 50s embraced the play. Not yet 30, Hansberry was lionized by mainstream America as no black writer had ever been. But the play's true achievement endures. A Raisin in the Sun was the most realistic, richly-textured portrait of a black family that American theater had seen, and many believe it remains so.

The play's achievement inspires all playwrights, but perhaps especially African-American women because of the mystery of how Lorraine Hansberry would have developed as an artist. She died at 34, after a long battle with cancer, only six years after the premiere of A Raisin in the Sun.

Adrienne Kennedy (1931- ) brought a poetic, hallucinatory vision to the generally realistic tradition of black theater. Kennedy calls her plays "states of mind," written while images "fiercely pound" in her head. Her works deal with racial, sexual and religious themes. They use surrealistic perspectives, tell stories from different time positions, and are filled with symbols, personal memories, and dream-like visitations from historical figures such as Queen Victoria, Malcolm X, Leonardo da Vinci, Patrice Lumumba, Charlie Chaplin, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beethoven, and Jesus Christ.

a still photo from the play 'Funnyhouse of a Negro'

A still photo from Adrienne Kennedy's play Funnyhouse of a Negro

Kennedy's best-known play, Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), was the first of her plays to be produced. A hit off-Broadway, it won an Obie Award. Among her other plays are: The Owl Answers (1965); A Rat's Mass (1967), inspired by a vivid dream; A Beast Story (1969) about a black Midwestern family; Lesson in a Dead Language (1967); and Evening with Dead Essex (1973) a semi-documentary about Mark Essex, a sniper shot by police in New Orleans.

Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange (1948- ) rose to prominence with her smash hit for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1975). Like Kennedy, Shange takes a non-linear approach with the play, but its style is her own. With an innovative blend of music, dance, and poetry, the play confronts social problems and "gender issues" within the black community. Shange has won two Obie Awards, including one for her 1980 adaptation of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children. She is also a novelist and prolific poet.

Kennedy and Shange achieved their prominence as the Black Arts Movement (BAM) gathered momentum. Described as the "spiritual sister" of the Black Power movement, BAM started in 1965 and lasted a decade. Many black writers were involved, most prominently poet-playwright Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). The movement rejected integration with whites-and especially with European-derived notions about art and its relationship to society. It focused on Africa as a traditional and contemporary source of inspiration and cultural power, urged an on-the-street involvement of black artists with black communities, and erased distinctions between art and ethics, declaring that black arts must be a spiritual force that helps the lives of black people.

The legacy of the movement is debated. But some of BAM's ideas undoubtedly formed part of the mix that has influenced Latino, American Indian, and Asian-American writers intent on exploring their distinctive cultures as well as the energetic group of black women playwrights who have followed.

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

They include such writers as Regina Taylor, Pearl Cleage, Anna Deavere Smith, Kia Corthron, Lynn Nottage, Dael Orlandersmith, Kirsten Childs, Thulani Davis, and Suzan-Lori Parks, whose Topdog/Underdog (2001) made her the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Their plays home in on social breakdown, probe neglected corners of history, and speak with language that pulls audiences into imagined worlds. With a new urgency, they engage the art of theater, claiming the tradition passed down from ancient ritual and nourished in the marketplace, on the steps of churches and in the courtyards of inns.

Bibliography

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, ed. Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Greenwood Press, 1990.

Hamalian, Leo and James V. Hatch, ed. The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938. Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Hatch, James V. Black Theater USA: 45 Plays by Black Americans, 1847-1974. Free Press, 1974.

Hill, Patricia Liggins. Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Perkins, Elizabeth A., ed. Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950. Indiana University Press, 1989.

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