Kate Dossett: Making Theatre Dangerous Again

Today we welcome a guest post by Kate Dossett, author of Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal, out now from UNC Press.

Between 1935 and 1939, the United States government paid out-of-work artists to write, act, and stage theatre as part of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a New Deal job relief program. In segregated “Negro Units” set up under the FTP, African American artists took on theatre work usually reserved for whites, staged black versions of “white” classics, and developed radical new dramas. In this fresh history of the FTP Negro Units, Kate Dossett examines what she calls the black performance community—a broad network of actors, dramatists, audiences, critics, and community activists—who made and remade black theatre manuscripts for the Negro Units and other theatre companies from New York to Seattle.

Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal is now available in paper and ebook editions.

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Making Theatre Dangerous Again

In November 2016 the vice president-elect was accosted at the theatre by the ghost of presidents past. Following the curtain call of the Broadway musical Hamilton, the actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who was playing the role of Vice President Aaron Burr, addressed Mike Pence directly from the stage. Urging Pence “to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us,” he expressed the concerns of minorities who feared “your new administration will not protect us.”

By 6 a.m. the next morning Donald Trump had taken to Twitter to denounce the cast. Demanding an apology, the president-elect cast himself as the guardian of American theatre, tweeting: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”

If Hamilton appeared unsafe to Trump and associates, for some theatre scholars the Broadway blockbuster is “too safe.” For Donatella Galella the musical stages a mythical, “multiracial utopia.”  Mobilizing “performances of color,” it suggests all Americans have “a fair chance to compete for access to “The Room Where it Happens.” It has become, she argues, a “commodity of resistance,” one that reminds us that “patriotic pluralism continues to sell.” [i]  The attendance of Mike Pence, and of both the Obamas and Dick Cheney before that, attests to the idea that Hamilton’s success relies on it offering a safe space for political theatre. In this context then, Trump’s exhortation that theatre must be made safe—just as America should be made great again—hints at a different theatrical past.

Rex Ingram posting as Henri Christophe in the Harlem Negro Unit’s Haiti, 1938. Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection, ML31 .F44 Production Records, Photographic Prints File, Container 1177

The anxiety that theatre be made “safe” has a history as old as the Republic itself. It was a particular concern in the 1930s, a decade with parallels to the 2010s, when global white supremacy and extrajudicial killings of minorities propelled strong men to power around the world and governments on both the left and the right looked to control cultural production. In the United States, unemployed theatre professionals were paid by the federal government to write, act and produce theatre for four years between 1935 and 1939 under a national programme called the Federal Theatre Project. It included seventeen, separate Negro Units where African American dramatists, actors and directors took on roles usually reserved for whites, staged black versions of ‘white’ classics, and produced radical dramas of their own. Plays by Theodore Ward, Abram Hill, Theodore Browne, Joe Staton and others centered black experiences and directly confronted white audiences.

The Federal Theatre Project reached an estimated twenty five million Americans, many of whom had never before seen a live theatre show. Its popular appeal, provocative new dramas and insistence on integrated audiences, at a time when segregated seating was commonplace in both Northern and Southern theatres, infuriated white politicians across the political spectrum. Critics feared that state-sponsored theatre fostered not only radical black dramas but real life interracial mixing: theatre was becoming unsafe. In Congress, Southern Democrats and Republicans lined up to denounce the Federal Theatre as “un-American” and “pro-Communist,” and in 1938 they set up a congressional committee to hold hearings on suspected un-American activity in government agencies.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities and Propaganda is often remembered as the vehicle for Senator McCarthy and the anti-communist witch-hunts of the postwar years, but the congressional committee was first established in 1938 under Congressman Martin Dies to investigate extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. One of its earliest targets was the Federal Theatre Project. Committee member Republican J. Parnell Thomas called the Federal Theatre “a hotbed of Un-American activity” whose purpose was to advance two somewhat incompatible goals: communist revolution and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  In radio broadcasts, newspaper articles and in committee hearings in Congress, Parnell and his fellow committee members singled out black-authored dramas and experimental dramas as dangerous vehicles of revolution that must be stopped. In 1939, Congress refused to authorize further expenditure and the first and only attempt to establish an American federal theatre was over.

Vic Mason is celebrated by members of the UNIA in the Chicago Negro Unit’s production of Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog, 1938. Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection, Production Records, Photographic Prints File, Container 1173

Its legacy however is more than one of censorship and failure: it is also a story of black accomplishment, of a time when African Americans made dangerous and provocative theatre and black cultural production was legitimized by the state. Between 1935 and 1939 black performance communities in Seattle, Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hartford, Connecticut, and, for a brief time, in Birmingham, Alabama, and Raleigh, North Carolina, staged radical new dramas that challenged the conventions and generic expectations of American theatre audiences. In 2016, the cast of Hamilton pointed the finger at one particular white audience member: the vice president-elect, they seemed to suggest, wanted to both enjoy black performance and work to uphold racial hierarchies. To make this point, they had to step outside the play. Eighty years earlier black dramatists pointed the finger not at individuals, but at white audiences. They created innovative new documentary dramas, like the Living Newspaper, which allowed them to explore how theatre supported, rather than undermined racial capitalism. In Liberty Deferred, Abram Hill and John Silvera write white spectators into the script, putting white audiences under the spotlight, to be gazed at by actual black and white audiences. In doing so, they highlighted the relationship between black performance and white spectatorship in reinforcing America’s racial hierarchies and challenged the long established conventions that American theatre should be concerned only with the expectations and desires of white audiences.

Too often, radical theatre making, like other radical black traditions, has been buried: the cultural work of black theatre makers in the 1930s and the Federal Theatre Project in particular has long been hidden from view, buried in archives that have been neglected (at the height of the Black Arts Movement the Library of Congress shipped the archive out to a drafty warehouse outside Baltimore) and invalidated by artistic snobbery and the ongoing legacy of anti-communism that continues to view state-sponsored art as mediocre or political  propaganda. But black federal theatre is an important part of American theatre history and the canon of American dramatic literature. When a black woman steps into the performance space in Aleshea Harris’s 2018 drama What to Send Up When it Goes Down, to announce that this is a play for Black people, created with Black people in mind, to which white people are invited but are not centre stage, she is part of a long, rich and radical black theatre heritage.

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[i] Donatella Galella, “Being in ‘The Room Where it Happens’: Hamilton, Obama, and Nationalist Neoliberal Multicultural Inclusion.” Theatre Survey, 59.3, (Sept 2018), 364.

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Kate Dossett is associate professor of history at the University of Leeds and the author of Bridging Race Divides: Black Nationalism, Feminism and Integration in the United States 1896–1935. Follow her on Twitter.