In the introduction to the section of his Black Theater USA anthology entitled "Early Plays by Black Women," James V. Hatch recalls
Eldridge Cleaver's observation about the myth of the strong black woman. "He [the white man] turned the black woman into a strong self-reliant Amazon and deposited her in his kitchen--that's the secret of Aunt Jemima's bandana." Question: Do these women playwrights paint true portraits of black women? (136)
Hatch may mute the explosive potential of the statement with a final question, but he does not defuse it. He presumably wants to bring the cultural validity of the "strong black woman's" staged presence into question, by aligning it with traditional white male hegemony. A reformulated fusion of statement and question might read, "Can a 'strong black woman' be staged without challenging the validity of a 'strong black male' stage presence, or playing into white [male] hegemony's hands?" I'd suggest that Hatch was not the first to ask this question, that in fact this question lies just beneath the surface of most protest and problem plays written by early black women playwrights.(1) These playwrights carried on a dual liberation motif within their plays. While dramatizing the plight of their race, as a means of both raising a black racial consciousness and appealing to a possible white audience, early black women playwrights also formulated dramatic strategies which enabled them to stage substantive, independent African American female presences, and thus propose their sexual equality.
Many early black women playwrights were enthusiastically committed to the artistic program for social uplift which W. E. B. Du Bois established. For Du Bois, art (and especially theater) was crucial for countering the stereotypes still plaguing the race, and for establishing inspirational models for a progressive people. As Du Bois expressed it, "All Art is propaganda, and ever must be ...for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy" ("Criteria" 296). In order to achieve a black theater (as opposed to a black imitation of white theater), he proposed that "plays of a real Negro theater" must be:
1. About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. 2. By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continuing association just what it means to be a Negro today. 3. For us. That is, the theater must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. [And] 4. Near us. The theater must be in a neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro people. ("Krigwa" 134)(2)
Du Bois felt that a New Negro theater had to evolve from its own historical and cultural roots.
Would-be black women playwrights rushed to this call. Kathy Perkins points out that, during the years Crisis and Opportunity magazines sponsored playwriting contests, most of the winners were women (Black 5). Nellie McKay observes that between 1918 and 1930 "eleven black women published twenty-one plays between them, in comparison to no more than half a dozen [black] men who saw their works in print during these years" ("Theater" 625). Perkins provides possible reasons for this sudden burgeoning of previously submerged female talent: ...the large number of plays written by women could easily be attributed to the fact that since black women were not in any leadership position as compared to black men, these plays provided a unique opportunity for their voices to be heard. Also, black women had never been allowed much of an opportunity to express themselves in dramatic form and therefore seized the chance to do so. (Black 7) Other factors also encouraged black women to write drama. Margaret Wilkerson, commenting on Brown-Guillory's Their Place on the Stage, points out that, because most early black women playwrights lived in Washington, D.C., rather than Harlem, their work was more reflective of typical black life than was the work of playwrights who wrote from the Harlem experience. Thus, their plays were more closely aligned with what Du Bois intended by "race" drama (Wilkerson 125). She also notes that the women's focus on the black working-class family (reflective of Du Bois own ultimate focus, as the beneficiaries of the efforts of the "talented tenth") allowed these playwrights "to speak with authority about their community" (126). Finally, the working-class drama of these budding women playwrights offered the clearest alternative to white-imitation theater and the pernicious minstrel show.
Theophilus Lewis (perhaps the only true critic of black theater during the New Negro Renaissance) believed that middle-class support might result in better drama geared to this class, and in more sensitive actors and actresses flocking to this appreciative audience, but the black middle class would be more likely to insist that the black stage be an imitation of white theater (see Kornweibel 181-82). At the other extreme, white ownership, control, and patronage of Harlem theaters tended to produce a jaded product which catered to voyeuristic whites (183). Black women playwrights' participation in the New Negro Renaissance seemed to provide the surest means of transforming a white-managed theater industry into a serious and culturally responsive dramatic art institution (McKay, "Saying" 131).
Du Bois wasted no time in putting black women playwrights to work for the racial cause. In 1915, he organized the NAACP's Drama Committee, and by 1916 his committee sponsored Angelina Weld Grimke's Rachel, the first drama used "to focus national attention on racial oppression" (133). The play established other precedents as well: Grimke was the first black playwright to scrap limiting and negative black stereotypes (Miller 514),(3) and Rachel was the first full-length play written, performed, and produced by African Americans in this century (Perkins, Black 8). In Rachel, Grimke brought into focus the themes of social inequality, hiring discrimination, the black frustration and familial erosion which resulted from economic strictures, and the pervasive, blighting effects of racism--in the process setting the pace for "race" drama to come. In fact, a frequently voiced criticism of Rachel, especially from the middle-class black audience of the time, was that the play was too propagandistic, and should have been less concerned with political issues (McKay, "Saying" 133-34). This division over the role of art reached such a degree of prominence that the Howard Players came expressly to identify itself as a group which performed "only noncontroversial apolitical plays" (134).
This apparent controversy over the purposes of art serves to underscore the degree of commitment black women playwrights had to "race" drama. For instance, while the middle-class or "Black Genteel" women writers (such as Grimke and Georgia Douglas Johnson) persisted in writing predominately "raceless" poetry, their plays were almost exclusively racially oriented, suggesting a conscious division between "personal" and "race" matters (Miller 514, 522). As McKay states, "While black artists and critics have continued to debate the issues surrounding this quandary for many years, there seemed to be a consensus on the part of black women playwrights immediately following the debut of Grimke's play to follow in her footsteps and to take the relationship between art and identity seriously" ("Saying" 134). These plays by black women may, then, be taken as evidence of their participation, as a part of Du Bois's "talented tenth," in the advancement of the race. Most of the playwrights were middle-class professionals (especially school teachers) and had few children, "although they were generous in giving their time and financial resources to help raise the children of other members of their families" (McKay, "Saying" 135); many never married, married later in life, or had more than one marriage. Ironically, then, the very qualities which enabled them to contribute as members of the "talented tenth"--their relative independence--also constituted the evidence of their collective self-awareness as black women (Miller 135).
One cannot overstress the collectivity of their vision; to understand it, we must account for the intersecting circumstances shared by so diverse a group of playwrights. Zora Neale Hurston, Shirley Graham, Mary Burrill, Angelina Grimke, May Miller, Marita Bonner, Eulalie Spence, and Georgia Douglas Johnson (as well as other black women playwrights) lived in Washington, D.C., at approximately the same time, and were directly or indirectly influence by the Howard dramatic community. All of these women knew and communicated with Du Bois and Locke. Miller encouraged Hurston to attend Howard to study theater and literature, and later encouraged her to attend Johnson's S Street literary salon. Johnson encouraged Bonner to pursue playwriting. Burrill attended Johnson's salon, and encouraged Grimke to pursue playwriting. Miller was a student of Burrill's, and Burrill encouraged her to write her first play (Perkins, Black 7-8, 14-15).
The principal circumstance most of these playwrights shared was the common experience of disappointing (at least in the expectant …