Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era: Beyond the Formal Horizons

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview

TWO
THE DUAL DILEMMA OF THE BLACK FEDERAL DRAMATISTS

BLACK DRAMA did not start with the Federal Theatre. In fact, it has been around the American continent as long as there have been blacks to practice the African arts and rituals in religion, in storytelling, in song, and in oratory. In the beginning, it was the spontaneous, living drama of a people whose physical actions directly reflected their spiritual and emotional being, or as Alain Locke phrased it, of a race that was "inherently dramatic" in its mode of expression. The actor and the dramatist were one, and every performance was an opening night since playscripts did not exist. It was not drama, therefore, but written drama that was forced to await the coming of Western education to the African dramatic arts in America.

The earliest surviving plays known to have been written by black Americans did not appear until the middle of the nineteenth century; by that time, the stereotyping of blacks as buffoons in white plays and in minstrel shows had already been accomplished. Black playwrights and performers were locked into this derogatory public image, and those who aspired to create serious black drama were forced to leave America for the more hospitable atmosphere of Europe.1

There were serious plays about the black experience in America written by black playwrights in the early years of the twentieth century, some of which are still coming to light. However, before the New Deal's Great Experiment was launched in 1935, few of those plays ever reached the footlights. Commercial producers had little or no interest in producing them since white audiences expected to see black actors only in comic or subservient roles, and there were not many blacks who could afford to pay the price of commercial theater tickets. Certainly, no black American could hope to support himself and his family by writing plays about the black experience, so the art could be practiced only as a hobby, and would-be dramatists were forced to engage in other occupations to make a living.

"It was the Federal Theatre," said black Federal playwright Theodore Ward, "that proved the open Sesame, providing at once a laboratory and the wherewithal for creative enterprise."2 In fact, in no area of its endeavors did the Federal Theatre's efforts and influence reap

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