Department History

About the Department: History

The Department of Theatre Arts (formerly the Department of Drama) developed and expanded from course offerings in Speech, and by 1870 there had been developed an annual departmental oratorical contest. Initially, public speaking was an extracurricular activity without credit. On December 5, 1874, however, the University began granting academic credit for this work.

In 1899, public speaking was extended beyond elocution to include review of elementary sounds, position of the body, breathing, production of tone inflection, modulation and emphasis. This work was implemented under the supervision of Coralie Franklin Cook, a graduate of the National School of Oratory, Philadelphia. Such was the beginning of the intensive study of public speaking as an art at the University, although it was not made compulsory until February 8, 1911.

Ernest Everett Just came to the University in 1909 as an instructor of English and, together with a number of students, organized the first drama group, the College Dramatic Club. For several years, this club gave performances annually at the Howard Theatre, a local legitimate theatre in Washington, D.C. The financial success of the College Dramatic Club was evidenced by its donation of a clock to the Andrew Carnegie Library, formerly the School of Religion.

The Howard Players

During the period from 1919 to 1925, drama at the University reached a peak both financially and technically. In 1919, T. Montgomery Gregory was appointed head of the Department of Speech. Under his direction, courses in Dramatic Art were offered for academic credit for the first time and the College Dramatic Club became known as the Howard Players. The practical work of acting, character portrayal, technical work for the stage, the making of costumes and production management became the course offerings in Dramatic Art. The Department had its own business office, costume rooms and scenic workshop.

The Players specialized in the production of plays of Negro life written by students and others. Probably one of the most notable achievements of the Howard Players was the presentation of Emperor Jones with Charles Gilpin recreating his original role.

Some of the plays presented by the Howard Players during the period of 1919 to 1949 include Genifriede by Helen I. Webb; The Death Dance by Thelma Duncan; A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen; The Seer by James W. Butcher; The Monkey's Paw and The Proposal by Anton Chekhov; Divine Comedy by Owen Dodson; the premier performance of Amen Corner by James Baldwin; Hamlet by William Shakespeare and another premier, Medea In Africa, by Robinson J. Jefferies.

In 1949, under the leadership of Anne Cook, the Howard Players became the first college drama group to serve as ambassadors of goodwill, as they toured two plays throughout Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany for a three-month period.

College of Fine Arts

Succeeding his mentor, Anne Cook, Owen Dodson was later appointed chairman. During his tenure as chairman, the Departments of Drama, Art and Music merged to form the College of Fine Arts and in 1960 the three moved into the newly erected Lulu Vere Childers Hall with its adjacent Ira Aldridge Theater. Theatre critic Richard Coe of the Washington Post labeled Ira Aldridge Theater, "one of the finest facilities in Washington" and productions were often hailed as being creative and fine examples of college theatre.

Children's Theatre

In the summer of 1973, T.G. Cooper, Chairman of the Department of Drama at that time, recognized a growing need for departmental experiences in Children's Theatre. Cooper subsequently received a faculty research grant for a pilot program in Children's Theatre. The grant enabled the Department to engage the services of Professor Kelsey E. Collie, nationally known for his expertise in Children's Theatre, to direct Kojo and the Leopard. The success of this production led to the subsequent development, by both Professor's Cooper and Collie of Children's Theatre classes, workshops and touring productions. These successful endeavors culminated in what was recognized as the Howard University Children's Theatre (H.U.C.T.). The Howard University Children's Theatre received the Winifred Ward Prize as the most outstanding new Children's Theatre in the United States in 1974. The touring program organized a national tour and later received an invitation to perform in the 1977 Dundalk International Maytime Festival, Republic of Ireland. The group received the President's Award, the festival's highest honor.

European Premiere

In 1978, the Department of Drama along with the Department of Music, performed the European Premiere of the Broadway musical, Raisin and the world premiere of an original work, Sound of Soul, in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Maytime Festival

While some 40 actors, singers, dancers and musicians were performing on the European continent, another 20 were competing in the 1979 Dundalk International Maytime Festival. This time the troupe received the Premiere Award as best production and St. Clair Christmas posthumously won the Best Costume Award

Department of Theatre Arts

In 1992, upon the recommendation of the faculty and the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, the Board of Trustees approved the change in name from the Department of Drama to the Department of Theatre Arts.

The Department continues, in the tradition of its early years, to forge ahead as a leader in its comprehensive academic programs, producing quality theatrical presentations, receiving international recognition, developing the most outstanding Black talent on stage, screen and television, and embracing the Washington community with its dynamic outreach.

Dance Curriculum

In 1991, the Dance curriculum minor became a part of the College of Fine Arts. In 1992 the proposed Dance major curriculum was unanimously approved by the faculty of the College of Fine Arts and submitted to the Board of Trustees. In December, 1993, Dance was officially approved as a major in the Department of Theatre Arts.