HOOKED ON CLASSICS
“Drama is culture, and the culture of the race portends its advancement,” John Silvera wrote in his foreword to a list of “representative plays” of the Federal Theatre Project’s (FTP) Negro Units, “a new era is dawning for the Negro artist.” For a black administrator such as Silvera, the Negro Units represented a space for cultivating new talent among black playwrights and performing socially relevant material. Silvera and others struggled to establish criteria for African American drama: “Is the play a competent piece of craftsmanship? Is the theme a possible situation? Would its presentation be acceptable by and for Negro audiences?”1 Several productions fit this description and indeed transformed the nature of theater in the 1930s, not only in their racially charged content, but also because most Americans had never attended a live production until that period.
Of the Negro Unit productions, the most popular and successful was the Swing Mikado (1938), a syncopated version of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan comedic operetta depicting romantic mishaps and political foils in nineteenth-century Japan.2 On 31 December 1938, the Chicago Defender proudly reported that the Swing Mikado had captivated Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes; although Ickes had initially planned to attend only half of the performance, the first number was compelling enough to keep him in his seat for the rest of the evening. For Ickes, the Swing Mikado exemplified his own progressive inclinations on racial matters, as he exclaimed: “No people … can consistently be suppressed on the basis of race, color or creed, when they persist in making cultural contributions of real importance and benefit.”3
Ickes’s condemnation of widespread inequality would not translate into an executive policy barring institutionalized racism. Still, the FTP’S Negro