Black Theatre History

Black Theatre History

African-American people have been an integral part of Theatre since its beginnings. On John Gassners charts that outline the development of the Theatre in the Western World, it is shown that Theatre had its beginnings with the Passion Plays of Egypt and Asia Minor in 2000 B.C. Historically speaking, Mr. Gassners charts confirm Loften Mitchells undocumented statement that Theatre had its beginnings more than 6000 years ago, on the banks of the Nile. One need only note the Sphinxs Black features to determine the race of the ancient Egyptians.

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Early Black Actors

The first American production of a play was sometime during the middle of the seventeenth century. The play, Prince of Parthia, patterned its form from neo-classicism as all Theatre in America would until the Minstrelsy period. The Black man was introduced as subject matter very early in American drama. In 1769, a character with the name of Mungo, a West Indian slave, was a profane clown of little authenticity in the play entitled Padlock. Two years earlier, a Black character with the name of Raccoon appeared in Thomas Forrests play The Disappointment. With few exceptions, the plays that followed and used Blacks as characters gave Black actors two options: (a) accept the comic role or, (b) create a Theatre of his own. The second option was logically taken.

African Company

The first professional Black Theatre group in America was the African Company. Their Theatre was the African Grove, located in lower Manhattan at Bleecher and Mercer Streets. It was founded during the season of 1820-1821 by a Mr. Brown, whose first name is not known. The African Companys repertoire was primarily made up of Shakespearean dramas. However, the drama King Shotaway, based on The Insurrection of the Carvas on the Island of St. Vincent, was performed. Although the script is not extant, King Shotaway is probably the first play written and performed by Afro-Americans. The company performed for mixed audiences. Simon Snipe, in his book entitled, Sports of New York remarks, the audience was composed of white, black, copper, coloured and light brown. The African Grove continued to have performances until late in 1823 when it closed after being wrecked by white hoodlums.

No one can mention the African Company without the names of James Hewlett, a West Indian Black, and Ira Aldridge, an American Black. They are considered the first and second Black tragedians, respectively. When the African Grove closed, the only opportunity that remained for Black actors was blackface minstrelsy. Not willing to settle for anything less than serious drama, Ira Aldridge, Victor Sejour and James Bland, members of the African Company, sailed for Europe and became very successful. James Hewlett remained in Manhattan and performed Shakespeare whenever he could.

Howard University

Minstrelsy, which was to have a long-range effect on the Black man in American drama, had a definite form. Unfortunately, it is the only indigenous American theatrical form. For Blacks, minstrelsy lasted almost sixty years. It was not until the 1900s that Black actors completely broke the minstrel tradition. However, in those sixty years of minstrelsy, Blacks continued to form theatrical companies. There was no alternative for Black actors who wished to further their craft. It was during the minstrel period that a great University was founded. Howard University, so named after General Oliver Otis Howard its Founder, opened its doors in 1867 and was destined to become the capstone of Black education in the world.

First Harlem Theatre Movement

Loften Mitchell labels the years 1909 to 1917 as the First Harlem Theatre Movement. The first Black Theatre, The Crescent, was established in Harlem. Black shows were being moved from The Crescent to the now famous Lafayette Theatre, and The Drama Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of Washington, DC (Laura B. Glenn, Clara B. Bruce, E. C. Williams, Anna J. Cooper, Carrie W. Clifford, Georgia Frazier, E. E. Just, Montgomery Gregory, and Alain Locke) produced the first successful drama written by a Black person and interpreted by Blacks, Rachel by Angelina Grimke. In addition, Ridgley Torrence, a white poet in association with Mrs. Norman Hapgood presented the Hapgood Players, all Blacks, in a program of three one-act plays written for the Negro theatre. These three one-acts gave the world the first authentic drama of Black life. Mr. Torrence on seeing his plays Granny Maumee, The Rider of Dreams and Simon the Cyrenian, stated, I have sometimes imagined that the Negro, other things being equal, might produce the greatest, the most direct, the most powerful drama in the world.

The first Black drama group was also established at Howard University within the First Harlem Theatre Movement. Ernest Everett Just and a group of students formed the College Dramatic Club.  The College Dramatic Club, although financially successful, had a repertoire very similar to that of the African Grove. Rather than Black plays, they presented Shakespearean dramas and other English works. It was not until 1919, almost the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance that Black drama reached its zenith in the country and at Howard University.

The Howard Players

In 1919 the drama of Black life was reaching the heights of achievement. Three different little theatre groups were at the forefront of this movement that would open the doors of the American Theatre to a succession of race plays that gave permanent recognition to Black actors. The three groups were the Provincetown Players, the Ethiopian Art Theatre of Chicago and the Howard Players.

The Howard Players affiliation with a major institution is probably the cause of its longevity beyond the Provincetown Players and the Ethiopian Art Theatre. Montgomery Gregory, the first director had in mind the establishment of a National Negro Theatre. Some would say that goal was not reached; that was true in a literal sense. However, the Howard Players as late as 1997 have produced nationally known playwrights, directors, actors, and producers of African-American theatre and film. In effect, the output of the Players, the paths taken by its members as they left the ivory covered walls, have resulted in a direct and significant influence on African-American Theatre in the United States.

Howard's Department of Theatre Arts

During a students four years at Howard, the Department of Theatre Arts becomes the beginning, middle and end of the universe. A unique interwoven mix of people from around the world will populate this Department. It's main attraction though, has always been its amazing history of the entertainers it has produced throughout the years.

Today, the Department strives to continue the legacy of the Howard Players and the production of great giants such as Owen Dodson, Roxie Roker, Ossie Davis, Lynn Whitfield, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Isaiah Washington, and a host of others. You can feel the stars of yesteryear as you stroll down the historic halls of the Fine Arts Building, past the Ira Aldridge Theater where students and faculty spent days and nights preparing for the role of a lifetime.