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

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview

THIRTEEN
THE COMMON RHYTHMS

WHILE Big White Fog dramatized the influence of Marcus Garvey on the twentieth century Afro-American, other plays in the Federal Collection reflect other elements of the West Indian influence. The French colony of Haiti was one of the most prosperous and fiercely defended of European slave enterprises in the Caribbean, and the successful black revolution, which thwarted even Napoleonic efforts to re-establish French domination in the island, has fired the imagination of numerous playwrights, both black and white.1 As a source of inspiration to the Afro-American playwright, this historic black achievement differs greatly, however, from the dramatic appeal its spectacular elements held for white playwrights, and a comparison of Black Empire, which was written by Christine Ames and Clarke Painter,2 and Troubled Island, which was written by poet-playwright Langston Hughes, clearly reveals this; it also shows that drama is not black drama unless it projects the black soul, in the black experience.

While Black Empire was produced by the Federal Theatre in 1936,3 Troubled Island was not produced by the Federal Theatre by the time it closed and Langston Hughes, who was employed on the Writers' Project, never specifically wrote for the Theatre. However, both scripts are in the Federal Theatre Collection, and the setting and subject of both are the black empire which was established in Haiti by successful revolution. Langston Hughes chose to dramatize the rise and fall of the slave-emperor Jean Jacques Dessalines, who led the slaves to victory over the French after Toussaint L'Ouverture was captured through trickery and deported to France. Ames and Painter have dramatized the fall of his successor, Emperor Henri Christophe, who also engaged in the historic revolution. The authors of both plays use the historical fact that most of the intrigue that precipitated the downfall of the black empire was instigated by the highly educated free mulatto population for its own benefit; both dramatize the black court as a parody of the French court at Versailles; and both have chosen the potential wealth of tropical splendor to interpret. The orientations of

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