African-American Drama

African-American drama is the term associated with a body of plays written by Americans of African decent. The first examples of this can be traced back to the 19th century, when the so-called slave narratives emerged. Previously, oral tradition had been predominant in African-American art.

The Antebellum period in 19th century was marked by the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831. At this time the anti-slavery movement was becoming stronger and many people were calling for the abolition of slavery. One of the first pieces of black literature was The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). Ten years later, Douglass published a second influential book, My Bondage and My Freedom.

The emergence of slave narratives paved the way for African-American drama. The African Grove Theater in New York City, set up by William Henry Brown and James Hewlett, was one of the first theater companies to show African-American drama. The company performed various plays ranging from those of William Shakespeare to American dramatists. In 1823, it presented the first play written and produced by an African-American, The Drama of King Shotaway, by William Henry Brown. The theater's audience consisted mainly of African Americans and due to police raids and threats the theater had to be relocated several times.

In 1855, fugitive slave narrator and prominent abolitionist William Wells Brown (1814 to 1884) published his acclaimed play The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom. The play, a melodrama, was based on themes and motifs recurrent in fugitive slave narratives. It contains some comic moments and centers on the story of two slaves who secretly decide to marry.

African-American drama experienced a strong period of development during the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. At that time Willis Richardson (1889 to 1977), a pioneer in the black theater movement, wrote The Chip Woman's Fortune (1923), which was the first non-musical play by an African-American to appear on Broadway. Other famous plays by Richardson include Mortgaged (1924).

The period after the World War II was marked by the emergence of professional African-American playwrights. These include William Blackwell Branch (1927-), famous for In Splendid Error (1954) and Alice Childress (1916 to 1994), who wrote Trouble in Mind (1995). Other prominent figures at this time included Loften Mitchell (1919 to 2001), who wrote A Land Beyond the River (1957). In the post-war period, many African-American dramatists gained access to what had previously been known as white theaters.

One of the key African-American playwrights at the time was Lorraine Hansberry (1930 to 1965). Hansberry received critical acclaim with her first play A Raisin in the Sun, which was performed on Broadway in 1959. The play deals with the life of an African-American family and the issues of social climbing and integration. The success of this work was due not only to the playwright's talent but also to the cast, which included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Lou Gossett, Jr. The play was directed by Lloyd Richards, the first African-American director on Broadway.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the flourishing of the civil rights movement in the United States. The period was marked by the strong presence of African-Americans in the arts. One of the leading black playwrights of the time was Ed Bullins (1935-), whose plays Clara's Ole Man (1965) and The Fabulous Miss Marie (1971) depicted urban African-American life. Another influential figure at this time was poet, playwright and writer Amiri Baraka (1934-), known also as LeRoi Jones. His controversial play Dutchman was first performed in 1964 and received the Obie Award the same year. Baraka's acclaimed works include A Black Mass (1966), Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969) and The Motion of History and Other Plays (1978).

During the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, African-American drama was most concerned with self-representation. Plays were created by, for and about African-Americans. In the 21st century, this type of drama continues to explore the important topics of racism, slavery, equality and discrimination.

Diverse in terms of genre and literary style, many of the African-American plays share certain topics and ideas. Upon its emergence, this form of drama was also a response to the stereotypical depiction of African-Americans in white plays. The Minstrelsy shows contributed to the promotion of stereotypes in American society in the 19th century. For a long period, these shows were the only place where black performers were hired.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

African-American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader
Harry J. Elam Jr.; David Krasner.
Oxford University Press, 2001
A Sourcebook of African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements
Annemarie Bean.
Routledge, 1999
Archetypes, Imprecators, and Victims of Fate: Origins and Developments of Satire in Black Drama
Femi Euba.
Greenwood Press, 1989
Black American Poets and Dramatists of the Harlem Renaissance
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1995
Modern Black American Poets and Dramatists
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1995
Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era: Beyond the Formal Horizons
E. Quita Craig.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1980
Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America
Elizabeth Brown-Guillory.
Praeger, 1990
Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present
Elizabeth Brown-Guillory; Elizabeth Brown-Guillory.
Praeger, 1990
The Crisis of Black Theatre Identity
Harrison, Paul Carter.
African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1997
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Early Black Women Playwrights and the Dual Liberation Motif
Harris, Will.
African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 1994
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Refusal of Motherhood in African American Women's Theater
Meier, Joyce.
MELUS, Fall-Winter 2000
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays: A Biographical Directory and Dramatic Index
Bernard L. Peterson Jr.
Greenwood Press, 1988
Contemporary African American Female Playwrights: An Annotated Bibliography
Dana A. Williams.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Langston Hughes: Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921-1943
Joseph McLaren.
Greenwood Press, 1997
The African American Theatre Directory, 1816-1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Black Theatre Organizations, Companies, Theatres, and Performing Groups
Bernard L. Peterson Jr.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Parody and Double Consciousness in the Language of Early Black Musical Theatre
Krasner, David.
African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1995
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
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