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African American Department Collection and State Library Resources

Theater

 

While African American triumphs in mediums such as art, music, and literature were mounting and attracting the attention of mainstream audiences in the early 20th century, the growth and development of black theater was initially stunted by comparison. This was due in part to the uneasiness felt by many African Americans in response to stereotypical roles written for blacks by white playwrights. Though better roles would emerge over time, African American actors were largely left to perform in musical comedies if they objected to racial typecasting in more serious dramatic roles. These problems were exacerbated as controversy arose over who the performances were designed to entertain. As wealthy whites began filling the seats of Harlem venues like the Cotton Club, some began to wonder if these theaters truly represented and catered to African Americans.

In spite of these tensions, many contemporaries believed that the black renaissance was born in the theater. Black musicals such as Shuffle Along, Runnin' Wild, and Porgy and Bess helped to define the era, as did accompanying jazz rhythms and dances such as the Charleston. Some of the most readily recognized African American names in entertainment history also made appearances in the theater at this time, including Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, and Bessie Smith. Black musicals were enormously popular in the 1920's, and had some success remaining so even after the 1929 stock market crash. Audiences continued to flock to Harlem and other urban centers as African Americans expanded the medium with variety acts, jubilee singers, vaudeville routines, dance contests, and cabaret-style performances.  

As the critics of racial discrepancies in theater became more vocal, new initiatives were introduced in the black community to help put an end to stereotypical roles and perceptions. W.E.B. Du Bois called for an African American theater "by us, for us, near us, and about us". Charles S. Johnson, editor of the literary magazine Opportunity, sponsored literary contests to encourage black writers and provide them with a forum for their work. Activists such as Marcus Garvey stressed the importance of using the stage to achieve greater dignity for blacks and combat myths of racial inferiority. Women began taking on greater roles in playwriting, while theater groups and college programs slowly emerged.  As these developments unfolded, the Harlem Renaissance era would prove to be, if not a golden age for black theater, a time of change and self-discovery.

 

Winold
Prominent Figures in Black Theater
 
 

Mariette Bonner (1899 - 1971) - author, essayist, playwright

Mariette Bonner was the winner of several literary contests sponsored by Harlem periodicals Opportunity and The Crisis. She initially received attention for her essay On Being Young - A Woman - And Colored in 1925 and would go on to publish numerous short stories and a handful of plays over the next several years. Bonner's writings predominately focused on those of the working-class, particularly women struggling against the grind of poverty and racial injustice in urban neighborhoods. In 1928, her play The Purple Flower (1928) was awarded Opportunity' s prize for Best Drama. Though never produced, it proved highly influential among her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries and helped signal the expanding role of women in playwriting and storytelling.
 

 

Charles Sidney Gilpin (1878 - 1930) - actor, singer

A celebrated performer in a time when blacks struggled for equal recognition in the theater, Charles Gilpin was the first black man to perform in a dramatic role before white audiences. Establishing himself as an actor and baritone singer in a number of vaudeville and minstrel companies, Gilpin climbed the theatrical ladder by performing in the traditional, clownish roles that existed for African Americans at the time. By 1920, Gilpin was dominating the stage as a dramatic actor, delighting audiences as the title character of Eugene O'Neil's Emperor Jones. His spirited performances not only sold out theaters, but led critics to praise his ability to shatter racial stereotypes and expectations. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP at the White House in 1921, and later celebrated by the Drama League of New York as outstanding contributor to the American theater. In the remaining years of his life, he used his fame to motivate black actors and theater groups across the country, donating money and time to shaping the future of black theater.
 

 

Angelina Weld Grimke (1880 - 1958) - poet, playwright

Though established as a poet before the Harlem Renaissance is considered to have blossomed, Angelina Weld Grimke was embraced by the Harlem movement as her work began to appear in literary anthologies and journals such The Crisis and Opportunity.  A gifted writer, Grimke often challenged herself to confront difficult topics, such as her own repressed lesbianism, and aspired to achieve success as a dramatic writer. Her most notable achievement was her 1920 play Rachel, the first of its kind to confront the horrors of lynching and use the stage to address racial issues. The production, sponsored by the drama committee of the local NAACP, proved to be highly controversial, but was an early step away from the minstrel shows and musical comedies that had dominated black theater in the past.
 

 

John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) & James Weldon Johnson (1871 - 1938) - songwriting team

Early pioneers in the development of black theater, the Johnson brothers first arrived in New York City in 1899 with the hopes of presenting their own operetta on Broadway. After establishing a friendship with Oscar Hammerstein, who would introduce them to various power brokers in the industry, the brothers quickly found themselves in demand as song writers. Though minstrel numbers known as "coon songs" were popular among audiences and expected of black performers, the Johnson brothers made a decision not to write to them. Instead they would buck tradition by portraying blacks positively and elevating African American culture above preconceived stereotypes. Through the quality and popularity of their work, as with their hit song "Under the Bamboo Tree", they helped to usher in the notion of black equality in the theater - a cause later championed by W.E.B. Du Bois and other cultural authorities of the era.
 

 

Kringwa Players Little Theater Group

Co-founded by W.E.B. Du Bois and The Crisis magazine in 1925 for the purpose of promoting black theater writers and practitioners, the contributions made by The Kringwa Players to black theater cannot be overstated. Aside from providing stage opportunities for black performers, the group awarded prizes to black dramatists, provided space for training and rehearsals, and put on productions intended to uplift and educate audiences. Their support of political theater was also important, as new messages and ideas were able to find audiences at the community level, without the support of monied theater-goers and club owners. Though largely defunct by the 1930s, the group's impact was felt throughout the black community, both in Harlem and in cities like Baltimore, where successful extension groups had been established.
 

 

Websites:

African American Registry: Charles Gilpin
http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/charles-gilpin-early-actor-did-most-american-theater

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: Drop me off in Harlem: Exploring the Intersections
http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/interactives/harlem/index.html
Extensive multimedia website featuring audio, video, and image clips of Harlem Renaissance authors, performers, and personalities. Includes an interactive map of Harlem landmarks and theaters.

John Carroll University: Harlem Renaissance Multimedia Resource
http://www.jcu.edu/harlem/index.htm
This ongoing online project offers video & audio files of Harlem Renaissance artists and performers, and is divided into seven distinct subject areas.

National Public Radio: Present At The Creation Series - Lift Every Voice And Sing
http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/liftvoice/
Story of the Johnson Brothers composition of Lift Every Voice And Sing

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Modern American Poetry: Angelina Weld Grimke
http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/grimke/grimke.htm

 
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