According to the Howard University Department of Theatre Arts, "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."
This brief research guide will introduce you to several contemporary black playwrights whose works "illustrate the many purposes that black theater has served: to give testimony to the ancient foundations of black culture; to protest injustices; to project emerging images of the New Black; and to give voice to the many and varied expressions of black creativity" (Alexander Street Black Drama, 3rd Edition).
If you'd like to engage more deeply with Black History Month, the IU Libraries Arts & Humanities department has created a number of interrelated resources and features to provide more holistic coverage of this remembering. You'll find those, below:
And for all things Black culture, you can never go wrong with the resources, services, and collections of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center Library.
Additionally, throughout the '21 spring semester, our department is hosting an ongoing Racial Equity & Social Justice Challenge. This program encourage participants to engage with items from our collections that will facilitate and deepen their awareness of a variety of social justice issues, and features a number of titles relevant to Black History Month. If you'd like to join us, take a look at the Challenge Guide.
[Image of “A Strange Loop” at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Credit: Sara Krulwich/NYT https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/theater/black-plays-broadway.html]
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a 2014 Obie Award (for his plays Appropriate and An Octoroon) winning American playwright. Named a MacArthur Fellow for 2016, His plays Gloria and Everybody were finalists for the 2016 and 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama respectively. His work uses dark humor to explore issues on race in America.
"This modern riff on the fifteenth-century morality play Everyman follows Everybody (chosen from amongst the cast by lottery at each performance) as they journey through life's greatest mystery--the meaning of living."
Jocelyn Bioh is a Ghanaian-American writer, playwright and actor. Her play Nollywood Dreams was selected for the Kilroy’s List in 2015. She is known for her affecting comedies, including School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play and Happiness and Joe. Her musical, The Ladykiller’s Love Story, features songs by Cee Lo Green.
"It's the nineties and in Lagos, Nigeria, the Nollywood film industry is exploding. Ayamma dreams of leaving her job at her parents' travel agency and becoming a star. When she auditions for a new film by Nigeria's hottest director, tension flares with his former leading lady -- as sparks fly with Nollywood's biggest heartthrob."
Adrienne Kennedy is an American playwright, perhaps best known for her play Funnyhouse of a Negro, which premiered in 1964 and received the Obie Award. Her work is renowned for its use of surrealism and mythical, historical, and imaginary figures created to explore the African-American experience.
"The play tells the story of a young woman names Sarah living in New York City, and focuses on Sarah's internal struggle with her racial identiy. Written during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Kennedy's female perspective was rare for its time."
Dael Orlandersmith “write[s] about childhood and the sins of the father, the sins of the mother, and how people take on the very thing they don’t like about their parents and they become them.” Her play Yellowman is "about colorism in the black community in 2003, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won her the Susan Smith Blackburn prize."
"These two highly acclaimed new plays by the playwright whom the New York Times has called " an otherworldly messenger, perhaps the sorcerer's apprentice, or a heaven-sent angel with the devil in her "confirm her reputation as one of the truly unique voices in contemporary American drama. Yellowman is the story of Alma and Eugene, friends since childhood. As friendship blossoms into love, Alma struggles to free herself from her mother's poverty and alcoholism, while Eugene must contend with the legacy of his being "yellow" lighter skinned than his brutal and unforgiving father."
Theatre critic Lyn Gadner described theatre as "a form of activism – and activism as a form of theatre – [which] has long been with us, from the activities and the performances of the Actresses’ Franchise League, which supported the women’s suffrage movement, through the protest theatre of 1960s and 1970s with companies such as San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread & Puppet, and Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theatre."
This research guide will help you explore the symbiotic relationship between performance and protest, inviting you to discover resources on activist theatre and theatre-makers throughout the brief history of America.
[Image of Penumbra Theater’s 2018 production of “For Colored Girls” Credit: Allen Weeks/NYT https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/theater/systemic-racism-theater.html]
Black Drama, now in its third edition, contains the full text of more than 1,700 plays written from the mid-1800s to the present by more than 200 playwrights from North America, English-speaking Africa, the Caribbean, and other African diaspora countries. Many of the works are rare, hard to find, or out of print. More than 40 percent of the collection consists of previously unpublished plays by writers such as Langston Hughes, Ed Bullins, Willis Richardson, Amiri Baraka, Randolph Edmonds, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others.