L'événement culturel de l'été à Bruxelles!
In the second stanza of his poem ‘Note on the Commercial Theater’, Langston Hughes writes:
You also took my spirituals and gone.
You put me in Macbeth and Carmen Jones
And all kinds of Swing Mikados
And in everything but what’s about me—
But someday, somebody'll
stand up and talk about me
and write about me
black and beautiful
and sing about me
and put on plays about me!
I reckon it'll be
Yes, it'll be me.
Hughes' poem responds to the fact that African American playwrights and performers did not have a voice in the popular theatre until the twentieth century. Some of the first representations of African Americans on the stage were created by white performers in the now notorious black-and-white minstrel shows. These shows presented Black stereotypes that supported racist assumptions about African American behaviour and character. It wasn't until 1898, with the musicals A Trip to Coontown and Clorindy, that Broadway was introduced to its first Black performers. Although these two musicals maintained some of the stereotypes from the black-and-white minstrel shows, they contained a broader spectrum of Black experience and went on to make Black musicals a Broadway staple. Shows such as In Dahomey (1903), Abyssinia (1906), The Oyster Man (1907), The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1907) and The Red Moon (1909) introduced Broadway to some of the top Black performers of the age: Bob Cole, Bert Williams, George Walker, J Rosamund Johnson and Ernest Hogan. By 1910, however this brief flowering of Black theatre on Broadway had ended as death and illness halted the careers of three out of four of these performers. However Black theatre still flourished in Harlem, as all-Black ensembles such as the Lafayette Players experimented with serious drama and classic revivals. Similarly musical revue-style shows were so popular that Broadway audiences began to travel to Harlem to see them and sections of these revues were programmed into Flo Ziegfeld's Follies on Broadway.
In 1921 Shuffle Along, a musical comedy by Eubie Blake ran to 504 performances on Broadway. Its breathless choreography and physical comedy, impressed both critics and audiences creating a flurry of impersonations. As financial success came to Black musicals, whites gradually took over in the creative and financial areas of production. In the late 1920s several serious dramas began to be written dealing with themes of poverty and hardship among African Americans. The most notable of these were Porgy (1927) and The Green Pastures (1930). Although these plays were by white authors and used racist stereotypes, they served to prove to Broadway audiences and critics that Black performers could perform in dramatic roles with subtlety and intelligence. Black dramatists, however were still few and far between with only three plays by Black writers appearing on Broadway in the twenties: Appearances (1925) by Garland Anderson, Meek Moses (1928) by Frank Wilson and Harlem (1929) by Wallace Thurman.
Broadway was hit by the Great Depression and Black writers and performers suffered more than most. The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (1935) and Langston Hughes Mulatto (1935) were the only notable productions from this period. Mulatto would stay the longest running play by a Black playwright until Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun in the late 50s. Many Black artists received work with the Federal Theatre Project. This government-sponsored scheme produced many plays including Walk Together Chillun and Turpentine in 1936 and Swing It in 1937.
In 1938 Langston Hughes founded the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which staged his agitprop drama Don't You Want to Be Free? The play, employing several of his poems, vigorously blended Black nationalism, the blues, and socialist exhortation.
During the war Black dramas flourished in Harlem with the formation of American Negro Theater (ANT). Some of its productions received Broadway runs including Anna Lucasta in 1944.
After World War II the number of shows performed by all-Black ensembles declined as Black performers began to appear more frequently in plays and musicals with predominantly white casts. Straight drama began to tackle the problems of racism such as Deep are the Roots (1945), Set My People Free (1948) and Mister Johnson (1956). Black authors contributed such work as Our Lan' (1947), Take a Giant Step (1953), Trouble in Mind (1955) and A Land Beyond the River (1957). Two years after Simply Heavenly had a modest run on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, a play about a Black family in Chicago who aspire to a house in the suburbs, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play in 1959 and was a huge hit on Broadway.
During the 1960s Black theatre flourished alongside a powerful civil rights movement, plays began to carry a stronger political message. Baldwin’s explosive drama, Blues, first produced in 1964 in New York by the Actor’s Studio, explored the racial conflicts in a small southern town confronted with the killing of a Black boy and the subsequent trial of the white man who murdered him. The work of LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka) started to pass into the mainstream. His play Dutchman won the Village Voice OBIE Award for Best American Off-Broadway Play for 1964. As the acknowledged leader of the Black Arts and Black Theatre movements of the 1960s, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School in Harlem in 1964. There was also a growth in interest in Black history and culture as the roots of Black music were explored in Black Nativity (1961) and Hughes' Tambourines to Glory (1966), while plays like The Hand is on the Gate (1966) explored the history of race relations in the US. The 1960s also saw the rise of The Negro Ensemble Company, the New Lafayette Theatre and the New Federal Theatre companies, which were directed by Black artists.
In the 1970s Broadway began to see a resurgence in Black musicals, such as Aint Misbehavin' and Eubie! in 1978. Other serious plays won recognition such as The River Niger (1973) and For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (1976) by Ntozake Shange. A collection of twenty poems that explore the realities and complexities of life for seven Black women, the play interweaves poetry, music, dance, and drama to produce what Shange terms a “choreopoem.” First staged in a women’s bar in Berkeley, California, the play moved to New York in 1975. It eventually appeared on Broadway, garnering resounding recognition and praise and winning an OBIE Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Audience Development Committee (Audelco) Award, and Mademoiselle Award in 1977. The play also received Tony, Grammy, and Emmy award nominations. Success in the Black theatre continued to grow during the 1980s. In 1982 Charles Fuller won a Pultizer prize for A Soldier's Play and Dreamgirls won a sweep of Tony’s in the same year. The powerful and prolific dramatist August Wilson was the most important creator of Black theatre in the 1980s. His play Fences was a big hit in1985.
Much of the growing success of Black theatre can also be attributed to a growing Black audience. Earlier in the century Black shows were created for a white audience, but as theatres phased out segregated auditoriums and groups such as The Negro Ensemble Company encouraged the attendance of a Black audience, Black audiences began to support the work of Black writers and performers in the theatre. However, while there are now many important Black playwrights who "write about me" as Hughes once dreamed, and though many Black actors and performers have a popular and critical following, it is important to remember that Black theatre is still greatly underrepresented on Broadway and in the rest of American theatres.