A National Negro Theater That Never Was

By Fraden, Rena | American Visions, October-November 1994 | Go to article overview

A National Negro Theater That Never Was


Fraden, Rena, American Visions


While no group in the United States has been so invidiously represented onstage and so relentlessly prevented from working backstage or enjoying the vantage of the orchestra as have African Americans, neither has any other ethnic group in America been so centrally staged. Precisely because black entertainment was so deeply embedded in U.S. culture--indeed, it came to define what was unique about U.S. culture--and also because it was so deeply inscribed by racism, black cultural critics of the early 1900s turned their attention to the theater as a crucible for a new nationalism, a new Negro national theater.

Ethnic theater in the United States, which flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, operated for most groups not only as a way of identifying with a particular subculture, but also as a process of Americanization. An ethnic theater for African Americans, however, was incredibly difficult to start up and maintain against the commercial and popular forces lined up, ready and able to take it over.

Surely there was a difference between Yiddish theater, which (at least for a time) was safe from coopting mainstream commercial forces because it was predicated on a language other than English, and "black" theater, which had never been designed for black people, but was peopled by whites and (even) blacks in blackface. For African-American intellectuals in the early part of the 20th century (and for scholars throughout the century), the question was whether this kind of alienating cultural experience for blacks made impossible an alternative culture. Could an authentic black theater only exist apart from the popular and racist theatrical history, or was there something in that popular culture, racist though it was, that could be used again, authenticated, made to be genuine and genuinely unique?

Would it be possible to use forms contaminated by racism to transform racism? Black intellectuals were divided on this question. Some believed that popular culture was thoroughly debased and that a segregated theater devoted to racial pride and race history--a theater of uplift and moral seriousness--could create a weighty alternative; others thought that forms of dancing, singing and music found in minstrelsy could be rescued from racist content and incorporated into a folk tradition worthy of a Negro national theater.

Black critics, those talented tenth who did so much to foster the creative burst of energy by African Americans just before and after World War I--W.E.B. Du Bois, Charles Johnson, Theophilus Lewis, George Schuyler, Alain Locke--were, if not exactly innocent, then certainly optimistic about the possibilities of establishing a separate, national Negro theater. In his manifesto of 1926, for instance, Du Bois called for a theater "of, by, for, and near" blacks.

African-American theater might be said to have begun on the slave ships that brought the first Africans to the Americas. Those "performances" were compulsory, indeed a sign that freedom had been taken from them. Slave masters forced slaves to dance and sing on the passage as a way of making them seem cheerful and therefore controllable.

Before the Civil War, few blacks stood on the stage at all. There were some antislavery plays written in the 19th century, and at least six companies toured the country from midcentury through 1900 performing adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. But here, as in most early plays in the United States that included black parts, the black roles were acted by whites in blackface.

The one short-lived but heralded exception to blackface performance before the Civil War was the African Grove theater in New York City. Not much is known about this theater of the early 1820s. It opened in lower Manhattan; black actors played various sorts of theatrical fare--some Shakespeare, some realistic dramas, and popular songs--to mixed audiences. Newspaper reviews indicate the interest, condescension and hostility whites expressed at seeing black performers play roles deemed inappropriate because they did not conform to stereotypes.

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