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.

The “Ethiopian Theatre”
Minstrel shows emerged in the U.S. in the 1830s, with working-class white men dressing up in blackface as plantation slaves. Blackface refers both to a form of theatrical makeup and to stereotypical racist comedy. Blackface makeup also disguised the performer, granting a degree of anonymity so they could provide political commentary without consequences. Minstrel shows—sometimes called “Ethopian theatre”—grew in popularity as Jim Crow laws were established in the late 1800s. African Americans, however, also started their own minstrel troupes. Often they donned blackface, which allowed them to offer their own political commentary, as well as try to counter the stereotypes being portrayed in white minstrel shows. Black minstrels also teamed with organizations outside of minstrelsy to work toward changing the attitudes of society toward African Americans.

These clippings from the June 1889 edition of Harper's Magazine provide a brief history of minstrelsy as written by Laurence Hutton. The article includes an account of the first minstrel, other notable minstrels, and the rise of minstrelsy in the United States.

Images of minstrel actors G. Swaine Buckley, R. Bishop Buckley, and Frederick Buckley.

This is a poster advertisement for the minstrel actor W. W. Newcomb, expressing comedy by poking fun at black people’s challenges living in America. He mocked the way they talked, walked, dressed, danced, and used facial expressions.

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.

African Americans were seen as inferior and undignified in mass media. This image of actor Sam Lucas is more dignified than was typical of this period. It illustrates the point that African Americans were slowly receiving more serious roles.

The New Negro Movement
African Americans hoped they would be rewarded with full citizenship rights in exchange for their contributions to World War I. Instead, violence against African Americans increased across the nation. The New Negro movement arose in response. It encouraged militant self-defense and economic autonomy. The Harlem Renaissance also emerged at this time, promoting the rise of radical African American artists and intellectuals. The interwar era (1920s and 1930s) also offered opportunities for black theatrical artists to work within the liberal establishment. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Great Depression–era New Deal included the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). The FTP was segregated into White and Negro Units. Despite this discrimination, the Negro Units helped to employ black artists.

Best-known for his contributions to blues music, musician and composer W. C. Handy was also a member of the Negro Actors Guild. He did not compose the traditional “Careless Love,” but his version was well-known, and he used it as the basis for the popular “Loveless Love.”

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 is a review of past activities from the Negro-Unit of the Federal Theatre Project of Raleigh, North Carolina. Members both met with and presented plays to the community.

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.

Josh White was an African American singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor, and civil rights activist. He appeared several times on Broadway in the late 1940s.

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.

Black Theater Matters
Frustrated by the slow pace of change and devastated by such losses as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, some black activists questioned the ability of nonviolent civil disobedience to combat police brutality, poor living conditions, and economic inequality. In the second half of the 1960s, Black Power became the alternative to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. These later activists focused on self-love, cultural autonomy, and political empowerment. The Black Power movement opened the door for the Black Arts Movement (BAM) to grow. Playwrights such as Amiri Baraka and other politically-motivated artists of the BAM focused on reclaiming their African heritage, established community-based theaters, and sometimes embraced confrontation.

Founded in 1910, the Howard Theater was the biggest black theater in the world. The theater helped launch the careers of performers such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes.

Black Theater was a periodical of the Black Theatre Movement. This magazine contains articles about black playwrights. The cover of the third issue depicts The King of Soul or The Devil and Otis Redding, which represents Otis Redding encountering the devil and the toll it took on his life.

A drama club at Howard University, the Howard Players drew on their traditions while bringing in new tools and techniques. Members of this group believed older theatrical styles were still relevant to contemporary struggles.

Advertisement for an evening of entertainment to salute the April 1975 reopening of the New Howard Theater Corporation.

A list of some of the most prominent acts that have appeared at the Howard Theater.

In April 1975, the New Howard Theater Corporation presented an evening of entertainment to salute the reopening of the theater. Redd Foxx was among the featured acts.

Teenagers shown helping to promote the comedian Redd Foxx show at the Howard Theater. In the 1970s, the Afro hairstyle represented individuality and self-love.

Broadway and film performer Glory Van Scott wrote this musical based on the life of Sojourner Truth for the National Black Touring Circuit, Inc. Founded in 1974, this group aimed to increase access to black theater for communities across the nation.

Langston Hughes' play Simply Heavenly was performed in 1989 with Melba Moore at the Freedom Theater in Philadelphia. Moore performed at the theater in such plays as Day of Absence and The Happy Ending. She was heavily involved with the Freedom Theater and its productions.

Pennsylvania's oldest black theatrical institution, the Freedom Theater held a fundraising event at the Academy of Music in 1988. Founded in 1966, Freedom Theater has presented over 275 plays, bringing the affirmation of black culture to more than 400,000 theatergoers.

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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.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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