Looking beyond Lucasta: The Black Dramas of the American Negro Theatre

Article excerpt

A notable irony of African American theater history of the 1940s is that the decade's most influential black ensemble, the American Negro Theatre (ANT), had its greatest impact with their 1944 production of Anna Lucasta: a drama credited to a white playwright containing no specific discussion of race. The ANT was founded in 1940 in the basement of the Harlem library as an amateur neighborhood group dedicated to presenting for the black residents of the community "plays which furnish commentary, interpretation, illumination and criticism of our common lives" (Preamble 3). But thanks largely to the runaway success of Anna Lucasta, and the string of mediocre white-authored plays staged by the company in subsequent years, Harold Cruse discredits the ANT's legacy as a "basic defection from thematic integrity--the curse of racial imitation" (528). (1) The commercial profile achieved by the ANT and the virulent displeasure of black nationalists like Cruse overshadow activities of the company that are less familiar to historians, but more noteworthy in terms of the evolution of black drama during the 1940s--a sparse decade of activity for the African American theater.

Between 1940 and 1945, the ANT presented three ambitious original works by black playwrights which remain largely overlooked by scholars: On Striver's Row by Abram Hill, Natural Man by Theodore Browne, and The Garden of Time by Owen Dodson. All, three of these plays date, from the late 1930s, the period Evelyn Quita Craig terms the Federal Theatre Era." (2) Writing in 1980, at the beginning of a wave of scholarly re-evaluation of this phase of African American theater history, Craig describes critical reception of plays from these years as "suspended in a DMZ" between the prevailing standards and stereotypes of a dominant white culture on one front, and on the other a more militant sensibility among African American critics who tend to see "pre-revolutionary black plays too white-oriented and white dominated to meet their criteria for 'valid' black drama" (17). Craig offers a helpful set of questions for revisiting works of the late 1930s: "what did the black playwrights actually build with the bricks they inherited [from white culture]? And if they did not build white structures, how did they avoid 'the known risks of asserting their cultural norms in contexts governed by The Man'?" Others have since inhabited Craig's DMZ, but her model for reading previously dismissed scripts of the era--as structures built from the "bricks" of a prevailing Euro-American culture to house currents of meaning which run "deep in the Afro-American experience" (19-20)--remains vitally useful. (3) Its possibilities have not yet been exhausted.

This essay will use Craig's critical paradigm to revisit the three black-authored plays staged by the ANT. I will illustrate how the ANT extended the work of black artists of the Federal Theatre Era--using structural "bricks" inherited from white culture to address vital concerns of modern black America. Theatrical forms associated with ancient Greece, Renaissance France and Britain, and modern Germany were revitalized to speak anew to the contemporary social dynamics of 1940's Harlem. By injecting African American cultural identity and subjectivity into Eurocentric traditions, the ANT contributed on an artistic front to what historian Nikhil Pal Singh describes as the fundamental "historical and political process of translating black difference into normative, national subjecthood in the United States" (13). These dramas boldly asserted black dominion within the standards of a white American culture, while potently amplifying the economic, historical and social particularities of African American life of the mid-twentieth century. The ANT's work also resonated with a growing tendency within black culture to consider the domestic American struggles for racial equality within wider internationalist contexts. The geopolitics of World War II pitted President Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" against a "master face theory" as a planet-wide collision of ideals. …