African-American Theatre Lyrik Brown

African-American Theatre in the United States, a movement and revolution of theatre surrounding, for, and about African-Americans. The minstrel shows(comical enactments of racial stereotypes) of the early 19th century are believed to be the roots of African-American theatre, but they were initially written by whites. Of course, writing plays full of discrimination wasn't enough. The plays were normally acted out by whites in blackface, a mockery of the African race and heritage, and performed for Caucasian audiences.

A white male actor in blackface
A white woman in blackface

It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that African-Americans took control of their own stories. African-American musicals were being produced, written, and acted out completely by African-Americans. The first known play by an African-American was James Brown's King Shotaway(1823). William Wells Brown's The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom(1858), was the first published play by an African-American.

King Shotaway, James Brown

The African Company performing in the African Grove Theatre is considered the first formal black theatre company in America. Organized in Lower Manhattan by William Brown (manager) and James Hewlett (leading actor) during the 1820-21 season, the company performed a primarily Shakespearean repertory in a small 300 seat house.

African-American theatre began to flourish during the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and '30s. Experimental groups and black theatre companies emerged in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C. One of these was the Ethiopian Art Theatre, which established Paul Robeson as America's foremost African-American actor.

Paul Robeson

Garland Anderson's play Appearances(1915) was the first play of black authorship to be produced on Broadway, but African-American theatre did not create a Broadway hit until Langston Hughes's Mulatto(1935) won acclaim. In that same year of 1935, the Federal Theatre Project was founded and provided a training ground for African-Americans.

Advertisement for Federal Theatre Project Production

In the late 1930's, talents such as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee came to light through the new African-American community theatres. By 1940, African-American theatre was firmly grounded in the American Negro Theatre and the Negro Playwrights' Company.

Producers in the Negro Theatre Arts

Still it wasn't until after World War II that African-American theatre became more progressive, more radical, reflecting on the ideas of African-American revolution and seeking to establish a mythology and symbolism apart from white culture. Councils were established to abolish the use of racial stereotypes, in theatre and to integrate Black playwrights into the mainstream of American drama.

Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun(1959) and other successful black plays of the 1950s portrayed the difficulty of African-Americans maintaining an identity in a society that degraded them.

Produced in 1959

The 1960s were the times of change, no longer being asked for. Amiri Baraka's plays, including the award-winning Dutchman(1964), depicted Caucasian's exploitation of African-Americans. He established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem in 1965 and inspired playwright Ed Bullins and others seeking to create a strong "black aesthetic" in American Theatres.



Created with images by cezary_p - "curtain scene theater"

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