What is meant by the phrase "Black Theater?"
“Black theater” refers to the plays and musicals written and performed over the past 200 years by African-Americans intended to portray the African-American experience. Black theater has its roots in the early 19th Century, specifically with the establishment of the African Grove Theater in New York City. While the African Grove Theater troupe primarily performed plays written by Anglo-Saxon playwrights, particularly the works of William Shakespeare, it eventually expanded into original scripts by black writers – much to the dismay of white theatergoers, whose protestations against the existence of an African-American theater company forced the theater’s closure.
The history of Black Theater would largely mirror the evolution of the civil rights movement in the United States. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s saw an explosion in the number of African-American-written and produced plays and musicals. Black performers would continue to suffer from the racial prejudices of majority white populations, but their contributions to American theater would continue to grow. One of the most important developments in the history of Black Theater was the production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raison in the Sun,” which opened in 1959 and became a classic not just of Black Theater but of American theater. The story of a black family’s decision to move from dilapidated urban apartment building to a white suburban community, “A Raison in the Sun” was the first popular – in terms of finding an audience beyond the narrow confines of the African-American community – African-American play to enjoy broad acceptance across the strata of American society.
Today, Black Theater has its greatest representation in the works of the late August Wilson (1945-2005). Wilson’s plays, including “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Fences,” and “Two Trains Running,” are widely respected and well-written depictions of the African-American experience, and are routinely performed in theaters across the United States. And “A Raison in the Sun” remains a much-produced play and film.
The term “black theatre” (better might be African American theatre) seeks to identify the theatre movement that arose during the 1960’s with the new awareness of the contributions of black culture to American life. It manifested in black playwrights, black themes, and black actors and acting companies. One of its chief voices was Imamu Imira Bakara, the African name LeRoi Jones chose to replace his “slave” name. His first important play, Dutchman (1964), began an artistic and social discussion of the problems of black identity in America, by dramatizing an incident on a New York subway that exposed the prejudices society brings to everyday activity. A very successful theatre company in New York, Harlem Players, showed the talent of the black community. Ed Bullins contributed Goin'a Buffalo in 1969. A leading Broadway actor, James Earl Jones, later famous for his movie career and unique voice, starred in Broadway plays. Black theater then drew from Caribbean roots. By 1990, the term lost its shock and black theatre became just one of many innovations in theatre history of the late 20th century, including The Living Theatre and other experimental groups that sought to revitalize the theatre language.