Early Black Women Playwrights and the Dual Liberation Motif

By Harris, Will | African American Review, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Early Black Women Playwrights and the Dual Liberation Motif


Harris, Will, African American Review


In the introduction to the section of his Black Theater USA anthology entitled "Early Plays by Black Women," James V. Hatch recalls

Eldridge Cleaver's observation about the myth of the strong black woman. "He [the white man] turned the black woman into a strong self-reliant Amazon and deposited her in his kitchen--that's the secret of Aunt Jemima's bandana." Question: Do these women playwrights paint true portraits of black women? (136)

Hatch may mute the explosive potential of the statement with a final question, but he does not defuse it. He presumably wants to bring the cultural validity of the "strong black woman's" staged presence into question, by aligning it with traditional white male hegemony. A reformulated fusion of statement and question might read, "Can a 'strong black woman' be staged without challenging the validity of a 'strong black male' stage presence, or playing into white [male] hegemony's hands?" I'd suggest that Hatch was not the first to ask this question, that in fact this question lies just beneath the surface of most protest and problem plays written by early black women playwrights.(1) These playwrights carried on a dual liberation motif within their plays. While dramatizing the plight of their race, as a means of both raising a black racial consciousness and appealing to a possible white audience, early black women playwrights also formulated dramatic strategies which enabled them to stage substantive, independent African American female presences, and thus propose their sexual equality.

Many early black women playwrights were enthusiastically committed to the artistic program for social uplift which W. E. B. Du Bois established. For Du Bois, art (and especially theater) was crucial for countering the stereotypes still plaguing the race, and for establishing inspirational models for a progressive people. As Du Bois expressed it, "All Art is propaganda, and ever must be ...for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy" ("Criteria" 296). In order to achieve a black theater (as opposed to a black imitation of white theater), he proposed that "plays of a real Negro theater" must be:

1. About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. 2. By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continuing association just what it means to be a Negro today. 3. For us. That is, the theater must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. [And] 4. Near us. The theater must be in a neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro people. ("Krigwa" 134)(2)

Du Bois felt that a New Negro theater had to evolve from its own historical and cultural roots.

Would-be black women playwrights rushed to this call. Kathy Perkins points out that, during the years Crisis and Opportunity magazines sponsored playwriting contests, most of the winners were women (Black 5). Nellie McKay observes that between 1918 and 1930 "eleven black women published twenty-one plays between them, in comparison to no more than half a dozen [black] men who saw their works in print during these years" ("Theater" 625). Perkins provides possible reasons for this sudden burgeoning of previously submerged female talent: ...the large number of plays written by women could easily be attributed to the fact that since black women were not in any leadership position as compared to black men, these plays provided a unique opportunity for their voices to be heard. Also, black women had never been allowed much of an opportunity to express themselves in dramatic form and therefore seized the chance to do so. (Black 7) Other factors also encouraged black women to write drama. Margaret Wilkerson, commenting on Brown-Guillory's Their Place on the Stage, points out that, because most early black women playwrights lived in Washington, D.C., rather than Harlem, their work was more reflective of typical black life than was the work of playwrights who wrote from the Harlem experience. …

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