Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938



Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938

This edition

"The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938" . Ed. Leo Hamalian and James V. Hatch. Foreword George C. Wolfe. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991. 454 pp.

Table of contents

Introduction: Two hundred years of black and white drama / James V. Hatch -- The Escape: or, A Leap for Freedom (1858) / William Wells Brown -- Peculiar Sam, or The Underground Railroad (1879) / Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins -- Aunt Betsy's Thanksgiving (c.1914) / Katherine D. Chapman Tillman -- Aftermath (1919) / Mary Burrill -- Black Vaudeville (c.1920) / Butterbeans and Susie (Jodie and Susie Edwards) -- The Chip Woman's Fortune (1923) / Willis Richardson -- The First One (1927) / Zora Neale Hurston -- Help Wanted (1929) / Joseph S. Mitchell -- Tom-Tom (1932) / Shirley Graham -- The Sharecropper (1932) / George A. Towns -- Nails and Thorns (1933) / May Miller -- The Shining Town (1937) / Owen Vincent Dodson -- On Strivers Row (1938) / Abram Hill. Bibliography.

Reviews and notices of anthology

• Giles, Freda Scott. "MELUS" 17.4 (1991): 142-45. "JSTOR": "There are thirteen plays in this volume. Four are presently available through other sources: "The Escape" (1858), a melodrama by abolitionist activist William Wells Brown; "Aftermath" (1919), a one-act drama on the bitter return of a courageous black World War I veteran by Mary Burill; Willis Richardson's one-act domestic comedy, "The Chip Woman's Fortune" (1923), the first work by an African American playwright to reach Broadway; and "The First One" (1927), Zora Neale Hurston's one-act retelling of the myth of how Noah's curse on Ham created the first black man. The rest of the plays have either never previously been published or are from sources which are no longer readily obtainable. Each play is preceded by an introduction which provides background information on the playwright and the play, plus a list of reference sources for more information about the playwright and his/her work. The introductory comments are not only informative but insightful and assist in enhancing the appreciation of the play without diminishing the pleasure of discovery which accompanies the reading of each of these works" (142). "The entire work is introduced through an essay by Hatch" (142), who explains the challenges faced by black playwrights operating in an environment saturated by distorted black images in white-authored works: "Hatch cites the use of dialect as an example. In the hands of white playwrights it was usually a device of derision. In the hands of black playwrights it was used to lend more realism to the play. In the hands of a black playwright use of dialect or a seemingly stereotypical character could become an instrument of inversion or subversion to be used against perpetuated distortions and lies which worked against black life and culture. Toward this end, African American drama developed along two lines: overtly political drama which exposed and attacked conditions which should be changed; and folk drama which more truthfully illustrated and delineated black life and culture. Hatch traces the lineage of African American drama along these two lines, and gives plenty of historical examples in support of his critical insights" (143).
• Pawley, Thomas D. "Black American Literature Forum" 25.1 (1991): 201-04. "JSTOR": in his introductory essay, James V. Hatch discusses the depiction of black characters in the dominant (white) culture: "Following a brief description of the black/Moorish character on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English stage, the evolution of the servant/slave character is traced. Hatch examines distortions in diction, thought, and character in typical plays which created the images of The Brute Negro, The Exotic Primitive, The Tragic Mulatto, and The Comic Minstrel. A discussion of the efforts of early black playwrights to counter these images follows" (201). "Of the plays in the anthology, only three have appeared in prior anthologies. Five have never before been published, including the often produced "On Strivers Row"" (202).

Commentary on anthology

• The Plays: The plays are presented in chronological order: William Wells Brown's "The Escape, or a Leap to Freedom" (1858) concerns the theme of escape from slavery (Giles 1991: 143) and is "one of the 'first' plays written by an African American. . . A 1990 production at the University of Iowa attests to its continuing vitality" (Pawley 1991: 202).
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins's "Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad" (1879) is also concerned with the theme of escape from slavery (Giles 1991: 143): it is "a rather lighthearted and joyful treatment of the escape of six slaves and the eventual reformation of their overseer. Written in 1870 ["sic"] and liberally interspersed with songs and dances, it was staged by Hopkins's Colored Troubadours" (Pawley 1991: 202).
"Aunt Betsy's Thanksgiving" (1914), "a one-act folk drama by Katherine D. Chapman Tillman, shows a family, which had become separated through a series of unfortunate circumstances, reunited in Aunt Betsy's cabin" (Giles 1991: 143). This work, "a short play in three scenes, is rather like a fairy tale with a happily-ever-after ending; it reminds one of early English plays such as "Ralph Roister Doister"" (Pawley 1991: 202).
It is followed by Mary Burill's "Aftermath" (1919), which embodies "a synthesis of folk and political drama. A decorated World War I veteran returns to find his beloved father a lynching victim and takes up his gun in vengeance" (Giles 1991: 143). "Although the conclusion is rather placid and not entirely satisfying, the play manages to sustain interest through its juxtaposition of the polarities of faith in God and fear of whites" (Pawley 1991: 202).
"A skit by the legendary vaudeville team, Butterbeans and Susie, circa 1920, follows. It is actually a transcription of one of their record//ings, and the lack of their voices and the music is felt. Still, as Hatch notes in his introduction, this is an important example of pure comedy writing, which is relatively rare during this period. This may be due to the pall minstrelsy cast over the image of the African American and the thrust at this time to exhibit a New Negro to the world. Hatch also points out that Butterbeans and Susie, with their constant domestic squabbles, are the only authors represented in the anthology who made their living solely from the theater" (Giles 1991: 143-44). "Remembering the one occasion on which I saw them perform at Club Alabam ["sic"] on Central Avenue in Los Angeles many years ago, I feel confident that the sketch may be viewed as a vehicle for the hilarious antics of two master comics [Butterbeans and Susie] which the script only begins to suggest" (Pawley 1991: 203).
Willis Richardson's "The Chip Woman's Fortune" (1923) "gives us a valuable leson in cooperation through his ostensibly simple folk comedy which centers on how a victrola is saved from repossession, but gives some profound insights into human integrity along the way" (Giles 1991: 144). The play "is an idyllic treatment of poverty, near poverty, and crime . . . in its tender presentation of an old woman's love for her son" (Pawley 1991: 203).
Zora Neale Hurston's "The First One" (1927), about the myth of how Noah's curse on Ham created the first black man, "plays both into and against stereotypes" (Giles 1991: 144). "Written in a lofty style, it is reminiscent of May Miller's "Graven Images" in its treatment of the Old Testament story of Ham and Noah. The characters, of course, are no more African American than those in the Miller play. Poetic and intensely theatrical, it deserves a wider reading, which hopefully its publication will encourage" (Pawley 1991: 203).
"In "Help Wanted" (1929), Joseph S. Mitchell frontally attackes two issues, employment discrimination and color consciousness, and intertwines them in the one-act drama of a young man who suffers severe consequences when discovered passing for white in order to get a job" (Giles 1991: 144). "Although the language is occasionally awkward and stilted, [the play] illuminates the dilemma faced by hundreds of light-skinned, near-white African Americans in the early decades of the century" (Pawley 1991: 203).
""Tom Tom" (1932), a dramatic musical which is one of the four full-length works in the anthology, is rich in symbolism and imagery. Shirley Graham, who later in life became the wife of W. E. B. DuBois, wrote the book, lyrics and music for this epic story which reincarnates characters in African, on a Southern plantation, and in modern Harlem, and through a kind of near-allegory gets to the profound meaning of the Garvey movement and the reason it was doomed to failure. Published here for the first time, this work cries out to be seen and heard" (Giles 1991: 144). Thomas D. Pawley calls this work "a full-length historical opera or musical pageant. Panoramic in scope, it dramatizes the condition of the black race in Africa, America, and Harlem. It is a colorful mixture of singing, dancing, and poetry" (Pawley 1991: 203).
""The Sharecropper" (1932) by George A. Towns shows how a tenant farmer is forced to flee after standing up to the nefarious white landowner who cheats him out of what is rightfully his" (Giles 1991: 144). This one-act play "attaks the vicious system which defrauded blacks in the South and kept them in economic slavery. After building to a suspenseful climax, however, it ends abruptly, leaving many unanswered questions" (Pawley 1991: 203).
"Nails and Thorns" (1933), a one-act social drama by May Miller, is "an anti-lynching play with a twist: the destructive impact of lynching is reflected in the disintegration of a white family rather than a black one" (Giles 1991: 144).
"The Shining Town" (1937), by Owen Dodson, also a one-act social drama, "gives a slice of urban life: in a New York subway station every bit as malodorous, dank, and dark as many are today, black women gather each day for a 'domestic slave market' from which white women select those who will work cheapest. Those who hold out for a fair wage go hungry. Even within this brutal context, Dodson finds poetry" (Giles 1991: 144). "The subject matter, drawn from the Great Depression, as it is in Dodson's "Divine Comedy", treats circumstances which, as far as I know, have not been dramatized before—the exploitation of cleaning women. In typical Dodson fashion, the language has elements of the poetic. Although it indicts the exploitation of the women, it does not preach—it implies, making the message all the more poignant" (Pawley 1991: 203).
Abram Hill's "On Strivers Row" (1938): this "comedy of manners among the 'hincty' black bourgeoisie has enjoyed numerous revivals but has never before appeared in print. Its publication is long overdue. Though the repartee feels a bit leaden at times, this biting portrait of a group of, in the words of critic George Schulyer, 'lamp-blacked anglo-saxons,' is still a crowd pleaser" (Giles 1991: 145). A "two-act satirical comedy of social climbers in Harlem," the play, "like Langston Hughes's comedy "Little Ham", is an insightful, although much more caustic, commentary on life in Harlem in the 1930s" (Pawley 1991: 203-04).
• "This book is further evidence, if any were needed, of Hatch's preeminence as a scholar of African-American drama" (Kinnamon 1997: 477).

Cited in

Hatch 1991: 185] [Kinnamon 1997: 476-77, gives date of publication as "1990"]

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