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

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview
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AFTER THE SUCCESSFUL production of The Trial of Dr. Beck, Hughes Allison was commissioned to write a trilogy for the Federal Theatre. Apparently it was not completed by the time the project was terminated, since only a foreword and the first play, Panyared, have been found in the Federal Collection, and no other plays have come to light.

The Foreword to Panyared is an interesting and valuable document which records the author's thoughts and theories on the function of black drama and the sociological role of the black dramatist. Apparently Allison intended the trilogy to span the entire period of AfroAmerican history, including its African "genesis." He was convinced that only a thorough knowledge of Afro-American genesis could destroy both white and black myths, and it was Allison's hope to promote better understanding between white and black Americans by dramatizing the truths of their historic relationship.

The title of the first play of the trilogy indicates the period of history which it dramatizes: "panyared" -- kidnapped, or seized1-- was a word in common use on the west coast of Africa during the slave trade, and the play dramatizes the seizure and transportation of Africans to American plantations, and the first year of their enslavement in the New World. This play predates Alex Haley's popular masterpiece, Roots, by thirty-five years, yet the similarity of some of Allison's incidents and many of the attitudes he dramatized, to those described by Haley, is striking. The role which was played by Haley's tribal elder on the middle passage, that of uniting men of many tribes and languages with the hope of achieving freedom, is played in Panyared by Allison's hero prince, who comes within a breath of successful mutiny. The mixture of compassion and fear with which newlyarrived slaves were received by blacks born to slavery in America is reflected by both authors, and similarly sets apart those born and raised in freedom from those who have known only the fear and degradation of slavery. The moral principles and practices of slavers, slave-owners, and those who voice the religious platitudes of their times, concern both writers; and both works reflect the effects of these


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


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