Art, Activism, and Uncompromising Attitude in Georgia Douglas Johnson's Lynching Plays

Article excerpt

Georgia Douglas Johnson (1877?-1966) is the central figure in an American dramatic genre formed by the responses of playwrights to the racial violence of lynching. (1) Johnson was one of the earliest African American women playwrights and, with approximately 28 dramas addressing both racial and non-racial themes, one of the most prolific of her era. Living in Washington DC during the artistically productive decades commonly known as the Harlem or "New Negro" Renaissance, Johnson was known primarily as a poet, but she made significant contributions to early 20th-century African American drama and to the corresponding national Black theatre movement. Johnson deserves recognition as the most prolific playwright of the lynching drama tradition and as the New Negro Renaissance artist whose work reflects an unprecedented and unrelenting devotion to the anti-lynching movement. Johnson's lynching dramas are landmark contributions to both African American theatre and American theatre in general.

This study provides a view of Johnson as both an outspoken advocate in the anti-lynching movement and a central figure in the lynching drama tradition. This perspective of Johnson is offered not in opposition to her more familiar and highly gendered reputation as "lady poet" of the New Negro Renaissance, but as an additional dimension of her artistic life. (2) Focusing on Johnson as a playwright supplements previous scholarship to contribute to a fuller understanding of Johnson as a multi-talented artist and to provide insight into her rich and complex dramatic vision. An intertextual analysis of Johnson's six extant lynching plays explores the formal basis of her artistry as well as her increasing sophistication in employing Black theatre as a means of social protest. According to theatre scholar Harry Elam, "African-American theatre critics and artists, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Amiri Baraka to August Wilson, have asserted that Black theatre practitioners must not only have authority over the representational apparatus but must use the theatre as a means of protest and revolt in order to change black lives and fight oppressive conditions" (Elam 6). Theatre historian and scholar James V. Hatch places anti-lynching plays specifically in the protest tradition initiated by antislavery plays: "The antilynch dramas, comparable only to the passionate appeal in antislavery plays, became the second form of American protest drama" (1996, 232). I analyze Johnson's use of irony, music, and the figure of the Black family as artistic strategies that both locate her plays on lynching within the tradition of African American expressive culture and inform her unique approach to theatre as social protest.

While several of her pioneering dramas have been examined in recent books and articles, we still need a volume that focuses exclusively on Johnson as a playwright and includes all of her extant plays. (3) Johnson was a persevering and prolific dramatist who worked under difficult circumstances to produce her art. It is ironic that she won lasting recognition as a poet but not as a playwright since she spent her creative lifetime working in both genres. As early as 1925 she wrote to Howard University's Alain Locke requesting his opinion of her recently completed Blue Blood, which she felt confident enough to describe as "a mighty good play." (4) In 1926 she submitted Blue Blood to the Urban League's Opportunity playwriting contest and won honorable mention; in 1927 her play Plumes was awarded the competition's first prize. Between 1930 and 1935 Johnson submitted several plays to the newly organized Federal Theatre Project (FTP), and in 1938 she contributed her playwriting skills to the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign. (5) By 1943 she had submitted her entire "book of plays" to the Wendell Malliet publishing company in New York, and her 1952 correspondence with Harlem Renaissance patron Harold Jackman reveals she continued to seek a publisher for her "book of plays. …