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.
In this post, Dossett writes about the importance of acknowledging and understanding the role of black women as collaborators in developing black theatre manuscripts on the Federal Theatre Project.
Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal is now available in paper and ebook editions.
Women Upstage: Black Performance Communities and the Federal Theatre Project
African American women were central to the development of black theatre during the four years of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). The FTP was one of four relief projects for unemployed artists established in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Alongside the Federal Art Project for visual artists, Federal Music Project for musicians, and Federal Writers’ Project for writers, the FTP was tasked with putting unemployed cultural laborers back to work and encouraging creativity in the arts. Between 1935 and 1939 the project established a range of drama units in towns and cities across the United States. These included seventeen ‘Negro Units.’ In theory, Negro Units could be established wherever there were sufficient numbers of unemployed black theatre professionals eligible to claim relief. In practice, Negro Units were usually set up where there was already a history of interracial collaboration between white producers and black theatre professionals. Negro Units in Harlem, Hartford, Newark, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle developed new dramas and maintained a regular production schedule through most of the four years of the project’s operation. Programming for Negro Units was a source of contention throughout the FTP. All dramas had to be cleared by the National Service Bureau headquartered in New York, while six regional production boards approved the programmes of individual units under their jurisdiction. Even so, individual Negro Unit directors and supervisors had considerable control over what would be staged, so it really mattered that of the Negro Units, only Boston had a black director for the full four years of the project. However as the project progressed, African Americans would take on formal and informal leadership roles especially in the Harlem, Seattle, Chicago and Hartford Negro Units. In each of these units, black women played prominent roles as actors, activists and creators of black dramas, yet it is individual playwrights, all men, whose work lived beyond the Federal Theatre. New dramas and adaptations by Theodore Ward, Abram Hill, Theodore Browne, and Joe Staton centered black experiences, directly confronted white audiences, and helped to forge a radical black theatre tradition.
Like all black theatre makers, black federal theatre dramatists had to navigate white gate-keeping in order to get their theatre manuscripts from the page to the stage. Often they were held back, but sometimes their work was staged and even acclaimed. Black male theatre makers fared considerably better than women, receiving credit both at the time and later on, especially during and after the Black Arts Movement, when black dramatists began to be recognized through publication in anthologies and revivals of earlier work. While women wrote and staged plays before, during and after the Federal Theatre Project, playwriting on the FTP was understood as a masculine pursuit. Fewer than twenty percent of dramas staged by the project were written by women, and few women of color were given opportunities to develop new work. Shirley Graham Du Bois worked as a supervisor on the Chicago Negro Unit while the actor Rose McClendon had been an important leader of the Harlem Unit before her untimely death. Katherine Dunham, pioneer of modern dance, developed several new dance pieces and Zora Neale Hurston worked briefly as a drama coach for the FTP but the project did not stage any of her dramatic works.
Black women were, however, central to the making of black theatre on the Federal Theatre Project. The focus on individual playwrights and ‘their’ manuscripts, tends to privilege men as creators of black culture at the expense of women. Understanding women’s roles as makers of theatre and agents of change requires that we attend to the collaborative process of play making and consider the process and development of theatre manuscripts as a collective rather than individual endeavor. In the 1930s much of this collaborative work took place in what I call ‘black performance communities.’ As I explore in Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal, these communities developed in and around, but importantly operated beyond the white-controlled Negro Units of the Federal Theatre. Women were at the heart of black performance communities. Some had official roles within Negro Units or established black theatre communities, such as Rose McClendon, Edna Thomas, and Fredi Washington in New York City, and Shirley Graham Du Bois in Chicago. Others, such as the actor and writer Gwen Reed in Hartford and leading lady Gladys Boucree in Chicago were—and remain—uncredited for their work.
When Shirley Graham agreed to work as a supervisor on the director of the Chicago Negro Unit she was a rising star. The author of many compositions and plays, it was under her leadership that the Chicago Negro Unit developed a hugely popular jazzed up version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, The Mikado. While the troupe changed neither the lyrics nor the notes of the music, the locale was transferred to an “imaginary coral island in the Pacific” and the music syncopated. It resulted in a “Swing Mikado” which had critics falling over themselves to praise the talent and rhythm of the black troupe. The Swing Mikado was so popular it transferred to New York and inspired a rival version—The Hot Mikado with Bill Bojangles Robinson. By this time Graham had moved on, enrolling in the Yale graduate drama programme in order to develop her career as a serious playwright and composer. Two of her friends who were in the audience at the opening night of the New York production wrote to Graham to express their anger at not seeing Graham credited in the program. Mary White Ovington, a white social reformer and early member of the NAACP urged her to make it public: “While I wouldn’t want you to push claims this seems to me a time when a woman is ignored partly because she isn’t supposed to say anything being a woman, a Negro.”[i]
Graham Du Bois was not alone: she was part of a much broader network of women who were important, if unacknowledged collaborators in developing black theatre manuscripts on the Federal Theatre Project. On play-reading committees and as cast members women critiqued, amended, and contributed to collaborative black manuscripts; women came along to previews, read through draft manuscripts and sent letters of protest and complaint. Collectively these actions shaped the black theatre manuscripts that were staged and which are now held in the FTP archive. But because women’s names have not been attached as playwrights to individual dramas and published in anthologies, the Federal Theatre Project has often been viewed as developing little more than a ‘blueprint’ for black theatre, helping to launch the careers of a handful of black male playwrights. In my book I argue that black women were not on the margins: they took on a variety of roles, including as makers and shapers of black theatre manuscripts. Sometimes their work is evident, recorded in revised and variant theatre manuscripts. Other times, women had to undertake the additional labor of documenting and preserving their contributions. Gwen Reed, an actor and writer on the Hartford Negro Unit, who would later play roles on Broadway and Hollywood as well as Aunt Jemima for the Quaker Oats Company, wrote her own account of the history of the Hartford Negro Unit which survived in manuscript form in her collection of papers now at the Hartford Public Library. 
Attending carefully to black theatre manuscripts and the process of their development is crucial to understanding the making of black theatre and the roles played by unacknowledged contributors, including women. For rather than reifying the individual playwright or text, understanding how and when black theatre manuscripts are developed help us understand the collaborative work that goes into developing and sustaining a radical black theatre tradition.
[i] Mary White Ovington to Shirley Graham, 27 Feb. 1939. Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Box 15.
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.