An Examination of the Relationship between Race and Gender in an Early Twentieth Century Drama: A Study of Angelina Weld Grimke's Play 'Rachel.'

Article excerpt

Women playwrights before 1950 were full partners in the theatre's protest against conditions for Blacks, whether in the form of "race propaganda," folks plays or historical dramas. They also made the unique perspective of Black women's reality a part of that protest. Not until mid-century, however, would their voices reach beyond their communities into the highly competitive world of professional theatre.(1)

Today when we think of black women playwrights the names that come to mind are Ntozake Shange, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, and Adrienne Kennedy. The endeavors and inroads that these women have made and continue to make in drama could not have occurred without the struggle and ground breaking works of early black women playwrights such as Angelina Weld Grimke, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, May Miller, Mary Burill, Myrtle Smith Livingston, Ruth Gaines-Shelton, Eulalie Spence, Zora Neale Hurston, and Marita Bonner. These black women playwrights, and several others, published over sixty plays and pageants in addition to writing several unpublished texts.(2)

Yet, despite these achievements, black female playwrights of the first half of the twentieth century have often been overlooked and pushed aside regardless of their contributions to American and black theater. Extreme racial and gender oppression best explains why the black female playwright was not recognized prior to 1950. Forces of racism and sexism erected barriers so that blacks, overall, could not achieve any significant status in American drama, and for black women playwriting as a profession was considered a male vocation.(3) Women, on the other hand, were encouraged to pursue more "acceptable," "feminine" genres such as poetry or fiction.(4) Being both black and female, therefore, limited the black woman's progress as a playwright. Consequently, due to racial and gender barriers, the work of black female playwrights was slow to emerge.

Prior to Lorraine Hansberry's production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959, black women dramatists were slow to evolve because of their limited access to staging their works and because of the stereotypes they had to combat. Like their male counterparts, early black female playwrights were writing against the stereotypical portrayals of blacks on stage by white playwrights. Commonly for black men, the stereotypical images were those of the comic buffoon, the lazy shiftless Negro, the Uncle Tom, and the savage Negro brute, while for black women there were the sexless domineering mammy types, the loose trolops, and the tragic mulattoes. White-authored productions, such as minstrel shows, helped to enforce these distorted images of black people because they were the most popular form of theater in America for nearly a century.(5)

Moreover, even when white playwrights attempted to "celebrate the Negro," their endeavors only ended in reinscribing the existing stereotypes. For example, white playwrights such as Eugene O'Neill, William Vaughn Moody, Marc Connelly, and Paul Green, all, at some point, used the Negro as their subject matter in an attempt to valorize black people. However, these "well-intentioned" white representations of black life and black people in drama did no more than reinforce the stereotypes already fixed about blacks. Whether the savage brute image changed to the noble savage in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones or if "Negro themes" were expressed in Paul Green's In Abraham's Bosom, "the work of many white playwrights did not address the experiences of Blacks in any serious way."(6) For this reason, it became important for both black female and male playwrights to re-create or re-invent reality in their plays in order to demystify white stereotypes of blacks.

It was the work of black women dramatists, however, which captured the lives of black people as no white or black male playwright could.(7) They created a reality that brought in the dynamic of gender in addition to the focus on race in their works. …