Theater can both reflect racism against African Americans and offer a vehicle for activists to fight against discrimination. In this way, theater tells the story of the struggle for racial justice from the late 1800s through the twentieth century.
Like black activists elsewhere, theater artists pursue a range of strategies, from the politics of respectability to militant self-defense. The general trend in black theater has been away from the struggle for inclusion in white-dominated institutions and toward the establishment of cultural autonomy. Each document featured here shows a piece of this evolution.
Notable Minstrel show songs: “Bonny Eloise,” “Virginia Rosebuds” “Bonny Jean,” and “Lilly Dear.” These songs were meant to represent blacks as inferior. However, Benjamin Hanby’s “Nelly Gray” was written from the perspective of a male slave in Kentucky. His lover was sold and taken away to Georgia and he is devastated. He eventually dies and joins her in heaven. The song lyrics summarize one way slavery was cruel and inhumane.
This is a series of stock images meant to be used in advertisements. Using exaggerated stereotypes, they show minstrel actors in blackface, wigs, comedic expressions, and tattered clothes. At this time, minstrel shows were widely popular forms of comedy. They generally mocked blacks due to slavery, poor living conditions, and poor grammar.
Willis Richardson, a pioneer in the black theater movement, emerged as a playwright at the dawn of the New Negro movement. His plays were crucial for black audiences, mainly students. Richardson, the editor of Play and Pageants from the Life of the Negro, helped to lay the foundations of African American theatrical drama.
This letter from Solomon Swaney to the General Manager of the Works Progress Administration reveals the deep discrimination toward the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. The young actors working under the supervision of Venzalla Jones were discriminated against because she was a woman and black. This resulted in the project not being able to perform publicly despite practicing all year.
1947 was the tenth anniversary of the Negro Actors Guild, founded by Fredi Washington and others. The Guild included such actors as Leigh Whipper, Noble Sissle, W.C. Handy, and Dick Campbell. The organization was established to try to eliminate the stereotyping of African Americans in theatrical and cinematic performances. It also stressed the need for more realistic roles for people of color, helped foster the skills of African American actors, and worked to generate more acting opportunities for blacks.
Lincoln University student and HSP intern Tauheed J. Alim created this exhibit with funding from the Arts Intern program at the Studio Institute. Arts Intern seeks to increase diversity in museums and cultural institutions.