African American Drama Analysis

Historical Development

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ed Bullins , a major figure in both contemporary and African American drama, describes this historical development and contemporary direction in a statement that has exerted a substantial impact on the subsequent development of the tradition:With the present Black Writers turned away from addressing an anticipated white readership and appealing the plight of Blackness in America to their masochistic delight, the literature has changed from a social-protest oriented form to one of a dialectical nature among Black people—Black dialectics—and this new thrust has two main branches—the dialectic of change and the dialectic of experience. The writers are attempting to answer questions concerning Black survival and future, one group through confronting the Black/white reality of America, the other, by heightening the dreadful white reality of being a modern Black captive and victim. These two major branches in the mainstream of the new Black creativity, the dialectic of change (once called protest writing, surely, when confronting whites directly and angrily, then altered to what was called Black revolutionary writing when it shifted . . . away from a white audience to a Black) and the dialectic of experience (or being), sometimes merge, but variety and power in the overall work are the general rule.

As Bullins suggests, early African American dramatists and performers did in fact anticipate a white audience or, in the rare case where the...

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The Harlem Renaissance

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The movement in African American drama from an exclusive address to the white audience toward Bullins’s black dialectics began during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. Responding to the growth of sizable African American communities in northern urban centers, black playwrights seriously envisioned for the first time a theater not predicated entirely on white expectations. Companies such as Cleveland’s Karamu House and Gilpin Players (named after Charles Gilpin, one of the first black actors to earn a major reputation as an actor on American stages), Philadelphia’s Dunbar Theatre, and New York’s influential Lafayette Players , along with the Krigwa Little Theatre movement, which under the sponsorship of W. E. B. DuBois established theaters in many large cities, provided proving ground for black actors and playwrights. At about the same time, plays by European American dramatists, especially Ridgley Torrence (The Rider of Dreams, pr. 1917), DuBose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward (Porgy, pr. 1927), Paul Green (the Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom, pr. 1926), Marc Connelly (The Green Pastures: A Fable, pb. 1929), and Eugene O’Neill (The Emperor Jones, pr. 1920, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, pr. 1924), began to treat African American characters and themes more seriously than had their predecessors. The presence of a black-oriented, if not yet predominantly black, audience, accompanied by the...

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Depression Era

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance gave way to the political determination of African American writing of the Great Depression era, attention gradually shifted away from the optimistic aesthetics of the influential critic Alain Locke, cofounder along with Montgomery Gregory of the Howard University Players , whose anthology Plays of Negro Life (1927) included work by both black and white writers. Supported by programs such as the Federal Theatre Project, playwrights such as Hughes and Theodore Ward, whose Big White Fog (pr. 1938) is widely considered the most powerful African American play of the decade, contributed to the proletarian theater exemplified by European American dramatists such as Clifford Odets. Despite the shift away from mainstream political positions, much pressure remained on black playwrights to align their views with those of their radical white contemporaries. Hughes, who began writing plays in the 1920’s and had the first Broadway hit by an African American playwright in Mulatto , which ran from 1935 to 1937, supported leftist political causes in plays such as Scottsboro Limited (pr. 1932), as did novelist Richard Wright, whose Native Son (1940) was a commercial success in a dramatic adaptation by Wright and white playwright Paul Green. Although best known as a poet, Hughes continued to work in theater throughout his career, although he abandoned the explicitly political focus in later plays such as Simply Heavenly (pr. 1957) and Tambourines to Glory (pr. 1963).

Postwar Developments

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The transition from a drama addressed to an anticipated white audience to Bullins’s black dialectics accelerated after World War II, proceeding in two major phases. The first phase, involving recognition of serious African American drama from a mainstream white audience, centered on the commercial and artistic success of a sequence of plays reinforcing the premises of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The second, heralded by Amiri Baraka ’s stunning Dutchman (pr. 1964) and culminating in the community theater movement frequently associated with black nationalist politics, redirected attention to the internal concerns of the African American community. By no means devoid of assertive political commitment, the plays of the first phase typically endorsed an integrationist philosophy, partially in deference to the anticipated white audience and partially as a result of the early successes and promise of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s interracial strategies. The first major success of the period, Louis Peterson’s Take a Giant Step (pr. 1953), was followed rapidly by William Branch’s In Splendid Error (pr. 1954), Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind (pr. 1955), and Ossie Davis’s Purlie Victorious (pr. 1961).

The most significant plays of this phase were Lorraine Hansberry ’s A Raisin in the Sun (pr. 1959) and James Baldwin ’s Blues for Mister Charlie...

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Community Theater Movement

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although these playwrights have made an impact in the mainstream theatrical world, the energy of African American drama since the mid-1960’s derives in large part from the community theater movement spearheaded by Baraka and Bullins. Repudiating not only the focus on the white audience but also the emphasis of many earlier playwrights on the problems of the black middle class, these dramatists oriented their work toward the entire black community. In part, this shift can be attributed to the growing influence of the separatist philosophy of Malcolm X as the Civil Rights movement confronted a new set of problems in the North.

Baraka’s Dutchman marked the major transition point in African American theater, emphasizing the common position of all blacks, however fully assimilated into the mainstream. The climactic murder of the articulate black protagonist by a white woman, who has manipulated his complex self-consciousness, provided a symbol that exerted a major impact on younger playwrights such as Ron Milner, Jimmy Garrett, Richard Wesley, Marvin X, Sonia Sanchez, and Ben Caldwell. Working in community theaters such as Baraka’s Spirit House of Newark, Bullins’s and Robert MacBeth’s New Lafayette Theater and Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre of New York, John O’Neal’s Free Southern Theatre of Mississippi and New Orleans, Val Gray Ward’s Kuumba Theatre of Chicago, and the Black Arts/West of San Francisco, these playwrights struggled to create a theater designed specifically to reach an audience unlikely to attend traditional theatrical events.

Drawing heavily on traditions of African and African American music and dance, many of their plays, including Milner’s Who’s Got His Own (pr. 1966), Garrett’s And We Own the Night (pr. 1967), and Wesley’s The Last Street Play (pr. 1977), redirected “protests” intended for whites when presented in mainstream theaters toward the revolutionary, usually nationalist vision that Bullins associates with the “dialectic of change.” Particularly in his Obie Award-winning The Taking of Miss Janie (pr. 1975) and in the plays from his Twentieth Century Cycle (most notably In New England Winter, pb. 1969, and In the Wine Time, pr. 1968), Bullins demonstrated a thematic power and technical versatility matched in American drama only by O’Neill.

Perhaps the best of the plays by Bullins is The Taking of Miss Janie , a play about racial tensions in the...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)

Dramatizing Assimilation

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the mid-1980’s, African American drama began de-emphasizing the revolutionary and recolonization aspects of the political platform, searching instead for a strong dramatic voice to tell the story of African American assimilation into mainstream American ideals. That voice was found in the work of August Wilson, whose series of plays, each based on a decade in the history of African American family life, have been developed in cooperation with the Yale Repertory Theatre and the O’Neill Center , officially known as the National Playwrights’ Conference. The plays have moved successfully from the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) circuit onto Broadway, with a new play appearing about every two years. The link between the two...

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Influential Women Playwrights

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The death of James Baldwin in 1987 took away one of the most effective African American talents from the stage. Political activists such as Amiri Baraka became less active in the theater in the 1990’s but vocal in other cultural affairs. The void left by Baldwin and the relative absence of prominent male African American playwrights in the late 1980’s and 1990’s opened the door for a new direction in African American theater: plays by women dramatists. Female African American playwrights, in the last decades of the twentieth century, gained attention for plays that expanded theatrical boundaries and created theater that offered unforgettable images in culturally resonant, historically significant, and deeply personal plays....

(The entire section is 1370 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bean, Annemarie, ed. Sourcebook on African American Performance: Plays, People, Movements. New York: Routledge, 1999. A series of articles explores the period between the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s and the New Black Renaissance of the 1990’s. Topics include the professional, revolutionary, and college stages; concert dance; community activism; step shows; and performance art.

Elam, Harry Justin, and David Krasner, eds. African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader. London: Oxford University Press, 2000. An anthology of critical writings that explores the intersections of race, theater, and...

(The entire section is 329 words.)