Owen Dodson Biography

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Owen Vincent Dodson, the grandson of former slaves and the ninth child of Nathaniel and Sarah Dodson, was born on November 28, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a syndicated columnist and director of the National Negro Press. Before Owen’s thirteenth birthday, death claimed four siblings and both parents; as a result, Owen and the other Dodson children lived with their older sister Lillian, an elementary school teacher. Dodson graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1932, earned a B.A. from Bates College in 1936 and a M.F.A. degree from the Yale School of Fine Arts, School of Drama in 1939.

At Bates, Dodson’s passion for poetry and drama was evident. In response to his criticism of a sonnet by John Keats, his professor directed him to write sonnets himself, which Dodson did at the rate of four sonnets a week during his undergraduate years. This output enabled him to become a published poet while still an undergraduate. Also at Bates, he wrote and directed plays, and during his senior year, he staged The Trojan Women.

At Yale, two of Dodson’s best known plays, Divine Comedy and The Garden of Time, were first produced. Dodson, recognized as a promising poet, soon gained attention as an up and coming dramatist. Talladega College commissioned him to write a play Amistad, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the slave-ship mutiny led by Joseph Cinque.

After Dodson received his graduate degree from Yale, he began his career as an educator. He was employed by Spelman College and later at Hampton University. Dodson was one of the founders of the Negro Playwright Company in 1940. In 1942, during World War II, he enlisted in the Navy. While stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, Dodson wrote and directed Heroes on Parade, a series of plays, including Robert Smalls, John P. Jones, Booker T. Washington, Lord Nelson, Dorrie Miller, Everybody Join Hands, Old Ironsides, Don’t Give Up the Ship, Freedom, the Banner, and Tropical Fable. Some of these plays were performed by other military drama groups in the United States and abroad. Dodson received a medical discharge in 1943.

On June 26, 1944, twenty-five thousand people saw New World A-Coming at Madison Square Garden. Based on the production’s success, Dodson was appointed executive secretary of the American Film Center’s Committee for Mass Education in Race Relations. Other prominent committee members were Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. Dodson was a prolific dramatist. He collaborated with the well-known Harlem Renaissance poet Countée Cullen and wrote The Third Fourth of July and Medea in Africa, an adaptation of Euripides’ Mdeia (431 b.c.e.; Medea, 1781) that was based on Cullen’s play Medea (pr., pb. 1935) and Dodson’s The Garden of Time. Dodson also collaborated with composer Mark Fax and wrote two operas: A Christmas Miracle and Till Victory Is Won.

In 1947 Dodson joined the faculty of Howard University, and a decade later, he was appointed chair of the drama department. He taught during the day and directed during the night. Indeed during his long career, he directed more than one hundred plays. In the fall of 1949, Dodson, Anne Cooke, and James Butcher led the Howard Players on a three-month tour of northwestern Europe. After the group’s return to Washington, D.C., the United States government presented Howard University with the American Public Relations Award. During the 1954-1955 season, Dodson directed the premier performance of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner nine years before its Broadway debut. He also staged productions of plays by former Howard students, including Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones).

In 1970 Dodson retired from Howard. However, his passion for the theater and poetry remained steadfast. He continued to direct plays and write poetry, including The Confession Stone and The Harlem Book of the Dead . Dodson taught at City College of New York and at York College in Queens. He died on June 21, 1983, in New York....

(The entire section is 1,901 words.)