Opportunity, Experience, and Recognition: Black Participation in Philadelphia's New Deal Arts Projects, 1936-1942

Article excerpt

Arthur R. Jarvis [*]

From 1929 until 1941, the entire spectrum of American labor felt the escalating problems of unemployment, hunger, frustration, and hopelessness caused by the Great Depression. Among professional workers severely affected by the economic catastrophe were people with backgrounds in cultural activities; artists, musicians, actors, and writers. These individuals saw their livelihoods evaporate because regular patrons cut back on buying paintings, attending concerts, spending evenings at the theatre, or purchasing the latest novel or magazine. Early New Deal relief experiments suggested that public support for cultural endeavors might be possible without excessive opposition. A program of work relief for the arts was initiated under the umbrella supervision of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935.

From the start of the WPA, Executive Order 7046 banned discrimination on federal projects. Although this policy was circumvented in some locations, particularly in southern states, the WPA proved a godsend for Philadelphia African-Americans in the arts. They demonstrated how this became the opportunity of a lifetime for people who had been ignored. Three of the four projects enjoyed significant black participation; the Federal Theatre Project [FTP], Federal Art Project [FAP], and Federal Music Project [FMP].

The WPA funded seven Pennsylvania theatrical units and Philadelphia operated four; a marionette project, a folk theatre and two vaudeville units, one white, and one African-American. From the start, each had varying degrees of success. In November 1936, the WPA Colored Theatre Project presented a revue entitled "Truckin' Along." Although it was a crowd-pleasing effort that made effective use of African-American talent, the show was a simple variety program in which director W.J. Hagerty packed a series of unrelated acts. [1] Hagerty was a local director whose previous theatrical experience had been limited to directing many burlesque shows. The buffoonery and low comedy of that format provided Hagerty with enough room to create early FTP shows, but later, when performance demands became more rigorous, he was unable to fulfill the requirements.

Of the theatre units that operated in Philadelphia, the black revues were the most successful live theatre. The energy and spontaneous good-nature of shows like "Truckin' Along" and its variety successor, "So What?", consistently drew appreciative crowds. In July 1937, James Light of New York's federal theatre project was reassigned to Philadelphia to specifically direct the black unit. National administrators believed this group had the talent to provide the foundation for a more challenging dramatic program. Light was selected for this job because he had achieved success as a director in London, Berlin and New York. His most notable achievements were with singer-actor Paul Robeson in Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" and the "Hairy Ape." [2] Light's successful record with black actors made him a major asset for the Philadelphia FTP when the "Colored Unit" showed the greatest promise.

The "Colored Unit" production of "Jericho" was its first attempt at drama. A familiar moral tale of the country boy lured to his doom in the big city, "Jericho" centered on the conflict between a Baptist minister and his son, who wanted to move to the big city to become a fighter. Good casting and excellent performances distinguished the play. The Bulletin called the work "impressive," the Evening Ledger said the performances were "dignified," but advised readers not to expect the usual assortment of stock characters. [3] The Tribune, the city's African-American newspaper, claimed that the work was "a highly recognizable advance from the position of the [the Theatre Project's] former efforts." [4] "Jericho" did not add significant material to theatrical history, but it marked a turning point for the Philadelphia Federal Theatre Project. …