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Do Black theatre institutions translate into great drama?

Helen Taylor, in reviewing Classic Plays from the Negro Ensemble Company, an anthology of ten NEC plays edited by Paul Carter Harrison and Gus Edwards,(1) observed that African American playwrights have not been so central to American literature as have black poets, novelists, and essayists. This argues against Harrison and Edwards's afterword, in which they contend that the NEC productions over twenty-five years have generated "a formidable African American theater literature" (593). If one accepts the revival as one precondition for classic status, then how many NEC revivals--or, for that matter, nonmusical African American plays--have there been on a Broadway or off-Broadway stage?(2) Taylor's reasoning is that the "history of Broadway (and even much of off-Broadway) is a white one, with blacks taking centre-stage as minstrel figures and minor characters in white drama" (12). In giving the keynote address before the Theatre Communications Group's 1996 annual conference, August Wilson reinforced this idea by pointing out that, of the sixty-six League of Resident Theatres, only one (Ricardo Khan's Crossroads) is black ("August" 104). Are more institutions like the NEC the answer to the scarcity of revivals and original plays apart from August Wilson's, or is this notion a romantic delusion, as Henry Louis Gates implies (44)?

The NEC is one in a line of African American theater institutions and programs that have not fully prospered because of a lack of financial support or support that took the institution away from nurturing what August Wilson describes as "art that feeds the spirit and celebrates the life of black America" ("Ground" 16). The lone exception might be the first black theater in America, Henry Brown's African Grove, which closed because of hardening racial attitudes shortly after Brown's King Shotaway (1823), a play based on the "insurrection of the Caravs on the island of St. Vincent" (Stock and Stock 36). Thereafter, serious drama would wait some eighty years, during which time minstrelsy, early musicals, and the beginnings of the Chitlin Circuit(3) would occupy the American and community stages. As Loften Mitchell has pointed out, these forms would use "the same weapons--the blackface, the low comedy [because] whites would not accept them any other way.... The wrecking of the African Company ... reached down through the years into the 1920's and beyond" (84).

Charles Johnson's Opportunity (1924) and W. E. B. DuBois's Crisis (1925) magazine playwriting contests, sponsored by Amy Springarn and Casper Hostein, respectively, helped spawn a number of serious albeit melodramatic plays--Ottie Graham's Holiday (1923), G. D. Lipscomb's Francis (1925), and John Matheus's Cruiter (1926). During the '30s, a number of Harlem community theaters functioned, such as The Players Guide, The Harlem Players, The Little Theater YMCA, The Aldridge Repertory Players, and Utopian Players. But as Fannin S. Belcher observed in a 1939 Opportunity article lack of funding worked against original material, the playwright "cannot afford to experiment; hence he must imitate" (293). During the Depression, the Negro Unit of the WPA provided employment and a theatrical laboratory, and served as a stimulus for the Negro Playwrights' Company and the American Negro Theater of the '40s. However, an act of Congress, citing communist influence, killed the federally funded project in June, 1939.

The Negro Playwrights' Company, incorporated as a non-profit organization in May, 1940, by George Norford, was another promising institution that fell to financial pressures. The company's single production, Theodore Ward's Big White Fog, magnified the events of the Garvey era by singling out a black family's ten-year involvement in the movement. But after sixtyfive performances, the NPC, although announcing another production for January, 1941, never resumed operations. Ward's idealism to return theater to the people was compromised by financial considerations, and the company's prospectus implied as much: "While its plans are designed to achieve and maintain financial independence in the future, and thus safeguard the public against the usual perennial appeals for funds for operation, the company is now frankly dependent for support upon these progressive men and women who are conscious of the need for developing the artists and culture of the Negro people" (Ward, "Why"). These progressives turned out to be Eleanor Roosevelt, Franz Boas, Orson Welles, George Kaufman, and Sophie Tucker, individuals whose interests lay more with broadening the appeal of African American culture than with developing an independent theater (Ward "Our Conception"). The new direction of the NPC was now to "foster the spirit of unity between the races" (Ward, "Why"), similar to Rowena Jelliffe's Gilpin Players of the twenties.(4)

Two members of the NPC, Owen Dodson and Theodore Browne, moved over to Abram Hill's American Negro Theater, a cooperative that would last eleven years (from 1940 to 1951) and produce fifteen major and five studio plays. Hill's goal was to establish a totally controlled theatrical laboratory where playwrights could improve their effectiveness through technical development. Here again, the Federal Theater's Negro units served as a stimulus, for Hill had worked with Frank Silvera on the Living Newspaper, a Harlem Unit group project, and he recognized the value of writing workshops.

Ironically, it was the ANT's emphasis on the actor and production that alienated the institution from its community. The ANT's production of Philip Jordon's Anna Lucasta rewarded several African American actors with long-term work and created stars like Hilda Simms, but it also retarded the growth of the ANT. The controversy that developed is reminiscent of August Wilson's expressed reservation about color-blind casting: "To cast black actors in 'white' plays was to cast us in the role of mimics" (Gates 44). Loften Mitchell complained that Anna Lucasta established a trend which drew the successful actor away from the company to the greener Broadway stage: "Like the Provincetown Players and later New Stages--the group had been destroyed by Broadway. People came to Harlem no longer to witness vital theatre, but to look for something that would `sell downtown'" (135). Harold Cruse lamented that the ANT "cut the ground from under the Harlem theater movement and prematurely scotched the futures of several potential dramatists" (529).

It is within this history of African American theater organizations that one can approach Douglass Turner Ward's Negro Ensemble Company and in turn August Wilson's current call for Black theater institutions.

Ward's NEC developed out of his now famous New York Times article ("American Theatre: For Whites Only?"), which is virtually repeated in Wilson's current TCG demands. Ward's call was for an institution that would examine "the contours, contexts and depths of his [playwrights'] experiences from an unfettered, imaginative Negro angle of vision" (Foreman 74). With a $1.2 million, three-year grant from the Ford Foundation, the NEC opened its doors in January, 1968, with Ward as Artistic Director and Robert Hooks as Executive Director. The NEC's goal was for a "unique combination of a professional producing unit offering a season of plays performed by a resident ensemble" ("Foreword" xi). A playwrighting workshop, a tuition-free training program for actors, and on-the-job technical experience for others would augment what some consider one of the most important black theater institutions in the U.S.

Ellen Foreman's excellent essay recounts the NECs first eleven years, including the criticism engendered by the Company's producing non-black playwrights (Peter Weiss and Ray Lawler), choosing "Negro" over "Black" as its name, and setting up in a downtown, white neighborhood (St. Mark's Playhouse). Clayton Riley, for example, criticizing the NEC's acceptance of Ford Foundation money, challenged the Company to produce "one proud work ... on its feet, rather than a hundred plays produced in a kneeling position before its dubious benefactors and the critics" (3). Amiri Baraka, in "Negro Theater Pimps Get Big Off Nationalism," accused the NEC of paying "homage to Europe, its life, its rulers its degeneracy, and its death ... play[ing] tagalong tagalong to white art, but also continu[ing] the dead myth of black art inferiority" (113).

Despite this early criticism, the NEC did in fact win a special OBIE in 1969 for audience and new talent development. But the initial three-year grant was not renewed, and the Company has struggled financially ever since. The training/ writing workshops were cut, and the idea of a permanent ensemble company eliminated. James Levertt, Co-Chair of Yale University's Department of Dramaturgy and Criticism, is quick to point out that Wilson's call for institutional support is the "same network of white-owned and operated agencies, corporations and foundations that gave us the Negro Ensemble Company, which gasped out its life for years" (14). More recently, the NEC, without a permanent location, has sporadically produced works at several locations. Opening its thirtieth season, interestingly, is Ed Bullins's Boy X Man at New York's Samuel Beckett Theater. Bullins, an early critic of the NEC, once arrogantly proclaimed Robert Macbeth's short-lived New Lafayette Theatre the "true Black theater" (13).

Upon reflection, black theater institutions do nurture community among playwrights, directors, actors, and others, but this is not a guarantee of lasting drama. There are glaring exceptions. Charles Fuller, who worked with the NEC from Brownsville Raid (1976) through 1988 and whose A Soldier's Play (1981) is the only post-70s play in the Harrison and Edwards anthology, is categorical about the need for a black theater:

There isn't any viable black theater in

New York, and I liked working with

NEC. Right now, the way the theater

operates, you do a play; you start out of

town; and you move from city to city.

Ultimately it winds up in New York

City. I never did that in my life. I either

open in New York or I don't do it. I'm

not going to go to Chicago ... Seattle ...

L.A. I'm not going to go to all of these

places to work out a play. I simply,

absolutely have no interest. So I won't

do them until we can pull

together some black people that I like

to work with here and do the plays here.

I've never opened a play anywhere else.

If I can't do that, I won't do them.


Fuller's Soldier's Play won a Pulitzer in 1981 and is certainly "central to American literature." ntozake shange's colored girls, another formative work of American literature, started in local northern California women's bars before Woodie King's Henry Street Settlement gave it a true theatrical setting. Garland Lee Thompson's Frank Silvera Writers Workshop (1973-84) provided an invaluable sense of community for aspiring playwrights, directors, and technicians. Workshop Moderators included Ed Bullins', Alice Childress, Owen Dodson, and Charles Gordonne, with Fuller's The Brownsville Raid, shange's Photograph, and Richard Wesley's The Sirens among the readings. Conversely, Wilson's plays have usually begun at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center Workshop in Waterford, Connecticut, moved to a series of LORT theaters, and then to Broadway. Baraka's Dutchman preceded his Black Arts period. Suzan-Lori Parks, Adrienne Kennedy, and Anna Deavere Smith use the college campus as laboratories.

Generally, seminal black drama has been created in and outside of black theater institutions. Paul Carter Harrison, who directed the original Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death at Sacramento State College in November, 1970, and whose Great MacDaddy utilizes mythic African and African American folk elements, is not cowed by European influences but uses them to his advantage:

You've got to authenticate what it is

you do, not necessarily mark what has

been presented as being the legitimate

forms according to European standards.

Not that you should say, I'm going to

move away from European standards.

The point is you are acculturated. We

are acculturated by these standards. We

know that they're there, just like we

know that they're two languages-Spanish

and English-if you're bilingual. It doesn't

mean you run away from English just to

speak Spanish. (Interview)

Alan Lomax offered a similar point when he stated that cultures "do not flourish in isolation, but have flowered in sites that guaranteed their independence and at the same time permitted unforced acceptance of external influence" (127).

Of course, this is not to say that black institutions should not be funded. Institutional money is given to support American theater, and black theater should receive its share. Woodie King's suggestion seems reasonable: An additional $400,000 to established black theaters like the New Federal Theatre, Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theater, the Billie Holiday in Brooklyn, the Jornandi in Atlanta, the St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre in St. Louis, the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco, the ETA Theatre in Chicago, Penumbra in Minneapolis, and New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia would raise these theaters to LORT status, insuring higher fees to playwrights as well as improved marketing and promotion. Great theater can emerge from the solitude of the artist observing a painting or from a black theater community like the NEC. There are no fixed rules in great art.


(1.) The ten plays are Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men by Lonne Elder III, Home by Samm-Art Williams, Phillip Hayes Dean's The Sty of the Blind Pig, Judy Ann Mason's Daughters of the Mock, The Offering by Gus Edwards, Leslie Lee's The First Breeze of Summer, Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain, Joseph Walker's The River Niger, and Paul Carter Harrison's The Great MacDaddy.

(2.) Home was revived by the Melting Pot Theatre Company in June, 1997, at the Theatre of the Riverside Church; the Valiant Theater revived Soldier's Play in 1996 at Theater Four in New York City; and the NEC revived Ceremonies in Dark Old Men at Theater Four in 1985.

(3.) Sherman Dudley's Theater Owners' Booking Association [T.O.B.A.] originated in the South and spread to the North during the 1920s. It included the Crescent, Lincoln, and Lafayette theaters in New York; the Grand in Chicago; the Gibson in Philadelphia; and the Howard in Washington, DC.

(4.) Jelliffe's rationale for African American actors enacting roles in white plays had racist intent: "Perhaps the chief talent which the Negro brings to the art of the theater is his peculiar quality of motorness, his extraordinary body expressiveness, which more than compensates for the degree of facial expression which is lost to the audience [in comparison with white actors] due to a darker skin coloring" (211).

Works Cited

Baraka, Amid. "Negro Theater Pimps Get Big Off Nationalism." 1970. Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays Since 1965. New York: Random, 1971. 111-15.

Belcher, Fannin S. "Negro Drama Stage Center." Opportunity Oct. 1939: 293-95.

Bullins, Ed. The Theme Is Blackness. New York: Morrow, 1973.

Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow, 1967.

Foreman, Ellen. "The Negro Ensemble Company: A Transcendent Vision." The Theater of Black Americans. 2 vols. Ed. Errol Hill. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1980. 2: 72-84.

Fuller, Charles. Personal Interview. Rock Harbour Townhouse, NJ, 16 Apr. 1992.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "The Chitlin Circuit." New Yorker 3 Feb. 1997: 44-45.

Harrison, Paul Carter. Personal Interview. 14 Nov. 1991.

Harrison, Paul Carter, and Gus Edwards, eds. Classic Plays from the Negro Ensemble Company. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1995.

Jelliffe, Rowena W. "The Negro in the Field of Drama." Opportunity July 1928: 12.

Levertt, James. "Token Opposition." American Theatre May-June 1997: 14+.

Lomax, Alan. "Appeal for Cultural Equity." Journal of Communication 27.2 (1977): 125-38.

Michell, Loften. Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre. New York: Hawthorn, 1967.

Riley, Clayton. "We Will Not Be a New Form of White Art in White Face." New York Times 14 June 1970: 3.

Stock, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1968.

Taylor, Helen. "Theatre of Color." Times Literary Supplement 12 July 1996: 21.

Ward, Douglas T. "American Theatre: For Whites Only?" New York Times 14 Aug. 1966: D1.

--. "Foreword." Harrison and Edwards xi-xxiv. Ward, Theodore. "Our Conception of the Theater and Its Function." New York Public Library, Schomburg Collection, Negro Playwrights' Folder.

--. "Why a Negro People's Theater." New York Public Library, Schomburg Collection, Negro Playwrights' Folder.

Wilson, August. "August Wilson Responds." American Theatre Oct. 1996: 101+.

--. "The Ground on Which I Stand." American Theatre Sep. 1996: 14-16, 71-74.

Donald M. Morales is Associate Professor of Literature at Mercy College in Westchester, New York, with a specialization in African and African American drama. His essays have appeared in The Literary Griot and the Journal of Afro-Latin American Studies and Literatures. Between 1987 and 1989, Morales, along with Leslie Lee, judged the Negro Ensemble Company's playwriting contests.
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Title Annotation:Negro Ensemble Company
Author:Morales, Donald M.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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