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

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview
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TEN
IDENTITY, OR BLACK RACISM IN BLACK DRAMA OF THE THIRTIES?

IN THE FIRST three decades of the twentieth century, racism in American drama had been the exclusive prerogative of the white stage. The white superiority myths that had dictated the inferior roles to be played by blacks in real life had also established the stage images, and black dramatists who had either the financial need or the hope of getting their plays produced had no opportunity to indulge in overt racism. In the thirties, the economic support of the Federal Theatre and its professed dedication to artistic freedom did relax this straightjacket; while some of the black-authored plays still failed to reach the footlights, both these and the plays that were produced certainly projected very different images than had been established by the white stage.

There is no denying that the black playwrights' departure from established white standards did, at the very least, challenge the singularity of those standards, while some of the plays exposed, even ridiculed white ethical practices; the author of Natural Man even went so far as to create a revolutionary hero who challenged their superiority -- a challenge that was also unmistakable in Big White Fog. As we have noted, critics interpreted John Henry's anger as being directed at the "forces of mechanization," no doubt because of the ambiguities of the dual communication system, but one reviewer of Big White Fog, while staunchly supporting the author's right to "free speech on stage or off," also recorded that there had been serious efforts made to persuade the mayor of Chicago to stop the production, and one of the reasons stated was that it was believed to incite "race prejudice."1 A review, written in the same vein, reported "weeks of backstage whispers concerning the play's subversive influence and its tendency to fan into white heat again embers of racial strife";2 and Sterling Brown noted that "because of Mr. Ward's frankness in discussing the race problem, policemen and censors were on hand prepared to quell a riot."3 To be sure, the term racism was not actually used by the white reviewers, for the days of such direct confrontation had not yet arrived, but their method of suggestion parallels the style

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