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Early black women playwrights and the dual liberation motif.

In the introduction to the section of his Black Theater USA anthology entitled "Early Plays by Black Women," James V. Hatch recalls

Eldridge Cleaver's observation about the myth of the strong black woman. "He [the white man] turned the black woman into a strong self-reliant Amazon and deposited her in his kitchen--that's the secret of Aunt Jemima's bandana." Question: Do these women playwrights paint true portraits of black women? (136)

Hatch may mute the explosive potential of the statement with a final question, but he does not defuse it. He presumably wants to bring the cultural validity of the "strong black woman's" staged presence into question, by aligning it with traditional white male hegemony. A reformulated fusion of statement and question might read, "Can a 'strong black woman' be staged without challenging the validity of a 'strong black male' stage presence, or playing into white [male] hegemony's hands?" I'd suggest that Hatch was not the first to ask this question, that in fact this question lies just beneath the surface of most protest and problem plays written by early black women playwrights.(1) These playwrights carried on a dual liberation motif within their plays. While dramatizing the plight of their race, as a means of both raising a black racial consciousness and appealing to a possible white audience, early black women playwrights also formulated dramatic strategies which enabled them to stage substantive, independent African American female presences, and thus propose their sexual equality.

Many early black women playwrights were enthusiastically committed to the artistic program for social uplift which W. E. B. Du Bois established. For Du Bois, art (and especially theater) was crucial for countering the stereotypes still plaguing the race, and for establishing inspirational models for a progressive people. As Du Bois expressed it, "All Art is propaganda, and ever must be ...for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy" ("Criteria" 296). In order to achieve a black theater (as opposed to a black imitation of white theater), he proposed that "plays of a real Negro theater" must be:

1. About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. 2. By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continuing association just what it means to be a Negro today. 3. For us. That is, the theater must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. [And] 4. Near us. The theater must be in a neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro people. ("Krigwa" 134)(2)

Du Bois felt that a New Negro theater had to evolve from its own historical and cultural roots.

Would-be black women playwrights rushed to this call. Kathy Perkins points out that, during the years Crisis and Opportunity magazines sponsored playwriting contests, most of the winners were women (Black 5). Nellie McKay observes that between 1918 and 1930 "eleven black women published twenty-one plays between them, in comparison to no more than half a dozen [black] men who saw their works in print during these years" ("Theater" 625). Perkins provides possible reasons for this sudden burgeoning of previously submerged female talent: ...the large number of plays written by women could easily be attributed to the fact that since black women were not in any leadership position as compared to black men, these plays provided a unique opportunity for their voices to be heard. Also, black women had never been allowed much of an opportunity to express themselves in dramatic form and therefore seized the chance to do so. (Black 7) Other factors also encouraged black women to write drama. Margaret Wilkerson, commenting on Brown-Guillory's Their Place on the Stage, points out that, because most early black women playwrights lived in Washington, D.C., rather than Harlem, their work was more reflective of typical black life than was the work of playwrights who wrote from the Harlem experience. Thus, their plays were more closely aligned with what Du Bois intended by "race" drama (Wilkerson 125). She also notes that the women's focus on the black working-class family (reflective of Du Bois own ultimate focus, as the beneficiaries of the efforts of the "talented tenth") allowed these playwrights "to speak with authority about their community" (126). Finally, the working-class drama of these budding women playwrights offered the clearest alternative to white-imitation theater and the pernicious minstrel show.

Theophilus Lewis (perhaps the only true critic of black theater during the New Negro Renaissance) believed that middle-class support might result in better drama geared to this class, and in more sensitive actors and actresses flocking to this appreciative audience, but the black middle class would be more likely to insist that the black stage be an imitation of white theater (see Kornweibel 181-82). At the other extreme, white ownership, control, and patronage of Harlem theaters tended to produce a jaded product which catered to voyeuristic whites (183). Black women playwrights' participation in the New Negro Renaissance seemed to provide the surest means of transforming a white-managed theater industry into a serious and culturally responsive dramatic art institution (McKay, "Saying" 131).

Du Bois wasted no time in putting black women playwrights to work for the racial cause. In 1915, he organized the NAACP's Drama Committee, and by 1916 his committee sponsored Angelina Weld Grimke's Rachel, the first drama used "to focus national attention on racial oppression" (133). The play established other precedents as well: Grimke was the first black playwright to scrap limiting and negative black stereotypes (Miller 514),(3) and Rachel was the first full-length play written, performed, and produced by African Americans in this century (Perkins, Black 8). In Rachel, Grimke brought into focus the themes of social inequality, hiring discrimination, the black frustration and familial erosion which resulted from economic strictures, and the pervasive, blighting effects of racism--in the process setting the pace for "race" drama to come. In fact, a frequently voiced criticism of Rachel, especially from the middle-class black audience of the time, was that the play was too propagandistic, and should have been less concerned with political issues (McKay, "Saying" 133-34). This division over the role of art reached such a degree of prominence that the Howard Players came expressly to identify itself as a group which performed "only noncontroversial apolitical plays" (134).

This apparent controversy over the purposes of art serves to underscore the degree of commitment black women playwrights had to "race" drama. For instance, while the middle-class or "Black Genteel" women writers (such as Grimke and Georgia Douglas Johnson) persisted in writing predominately "raceless" poetry, their plays were almost exclusively racially oriented, suggesting a conscious division between "personal" and "race" matters (Miller 514, 522). As McKay states, "While black artists and critics have continued to debate the issues surrounding this quandary for many years, there seemed to be a consensus on the part of black women playwrights immediately following the debut of Grimke's play to follow in her footsteps and to take the relationship between art and identity seriously" ("Saying" 134). These plays by black women may, then, be taken as evidence of their participation, as a part of Du Bois's "talented tenth," in the advancement of the race. Most of the playwrights were middle-class professionals (especially school teachers) and had few children, "although they were generous in giving their time and financial resources to help raise the children of other members of their families" (McKay, "Saying" 135); many never married, married later in life, or had more than one marriage. Ironically, then, the very qualities which enabled them to contribute as members of the "talented tenth"--their relative independence--also constituted the evidence of their collective self-awareness as black women (Miller 135).

One cannot overstress the collectivity of their vision; to understand it, we must account for the intersecting circumstances shared by so diverse a group of playwrights. Zora Neale Hurston, Shirley Graham, Mary Burrill, Angelina Grimke, May Miller, Marita Bonner, Eulalie Spence, and Georgia Douglas Johnson (as well as other black women playwrights) lived in Washington, D.C., at approximately the same time, and were directly or indirectly influence by the Howard dramatic community. All of these women knew and communicated with Du Bois and Locke. Miller encouraged Hurston to attend Howard to study theater and literature, and later encouraged her to attend Johnson's S Street literary salon. Johnson encouraged Bonner to pursue playwriting. Burrill attended Johnson's salon, and encouraged Grimke to pursue playwriting. Miller was a student of Burrill's, and Burrill encouraged her to write her first play (Perkins, Black 7-8, 14-15).

The principal circumstance most of these playwrights shared was the common experience of disappointing (at least in the expectant context of racial uplift) sexist oppression. Grimke was artistically paralyzed by her inability to express lesbian desire in a male-constructed heterosexual context.(4) Johnson, who expected to receive full recognition of her talents only after her death, calmly provided a summary of her unpublished works in an August 1944 letter: "Have about eight books here and ready to get goint--three new books of poetry, thirty plays both one and three act, thirty short stories, a novel, a book of philosophy, a book of exquisite sayings ... twenty songs" (Hull 189). As Claudia Tate observes, Johnson had this large volume of writing "on hand twenty years before her death, two decades during which she continued to write," but, tragically, her unpublished works were mistakenly discarded after her death (Tate 124). We learn from Johnson as well the challenge of being both housewife and writer: "If I might ask some fairy godmother special favors, one would sure be for a clearing space, elbow room in which to think and write and love beyond the reach of the Wolf's fingers" (Hull 165).

Shirley Graham faced a similar set of hurdles, although she responded differently to them. After a relatively short marriage to Shadrach McCanns (1921 to the mid-1920s), Graham left her children with relatives (while maintaining full economic responsibility for them) and pursued a writing career for the next twenty-five years. She did not marry again until 1951, when she wed W. E. B. Du Bois. Ironically, the marriage to Du Bois effectively ended her writing career. Graham's unsuccessful attempt to secure a second run of her successful Tom-Tom (1932), the second all-black opera produced in this country and the first professionally produced all-black opera, serves as a grim model of artistic frustration (Perkins, "Unknown Career" 7-16).

Both Miller and Burrill lost their audiences when they retired from teaching and also lost access to a stage for their plays (Perkins, Black 55-56, 144). Bonner managed to get all three of her plays published; but because she could not get her plays produced, she cynically considered them as "play[s] to be read" rather than performed (Perkins, Black 16, 190; Brown-Guillory 1-2). Her autobiographical essay "On Being Young--A Woman--And Colored" ruefully considers the intersection of her femaleness in a male-dominated world, and her blackness in a white-dominated world (Bonner 3-8).

Gloria Hull documents Alain Locke's misogynistic treatment of Hurston during her Howard years, and contrasts that treatment to the warm encouragement given to Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Richard Bruce Nugent (7-8). Only Eulalie Spence--the person farthest removed from the drama of racial uplift, from Johnson's S Street salon and other Renaissance writers, and from Du Bois himself (she preferred association with the "apolitical" Alain Locke)--seems to have avoided the misfortunes of her counterparts. She was able to see at least six of her plays published and seven performed. But even with these successes, her only full-length play was optioned by Paramount Studios but never made into a movie, suggesting that racial rather than sexual identity may have influenced the studio's decision (Perkins, Black 105-06). All black playwrights shared the common oppression of racism which resulted in limited staging and publishing opportunities. But early black women playwrights were additionally burdened by their identities as women and their choices to be playwrights.

The final factor influencing the collective vision of early black women playwrights may be described as a point at which racism and sexism intersected--the control of the Harlem theater economy by white owners. Theophilus Lewis cited figures showing that "white owners controlled 50 per cent of the theaters and 75 per cent of the patronage of blacks in New York" (Kornweibel 183). In business for profit, these owners dismissed serious black art and promoted vaudevillian and minstrel acts which frequently featured scantily or half-clad black women as voyeuristic centers of the black and white male gazes. This commodification of black women increased significantly with white cooptation of the Renaissance movement in 1924 at the famous Civic Club Dinner "coming out" of Harlem artists, and the "coming together" of these artists and white entrepreneurs and publishers. This event marked a transitional point in the Renaissance, as white cooptation redirected the movement's emphasis from racial uplift to the (white-defined) exotic and the profitable (Kellner xxi; Hudlin 272-73).(5) In fact, this displacement of emphasis all but guaranteed an eventual decline of a race-defined black women's playwriting movement. Until the 1950s, only Zora Neale Hurston (who was able and willing to write exotic theater), Eulalie Spence (who was never committed to race drama), and Shirley Graham (who managed to continue writing race drama only by supporting herself with such exotic fare as Tom-Tom, and her production versions of Swing Mikado and Little Black Sambo) managed to continue writing and having their works performed. Although black women playwrights had negligible influence over the theater economy in Harlem, they were committed to providing alternate, affirming images of black women.

Given this close panoply of black women artists and the challenges they faced, it is hard to imagine that they would not arrive at some heightened sense of their unique positioning in literary history precisely as black women playwrights, or that they would not have shared thoughts about how best to address the obstacles they faced. In fact, the process of emancipation which Gerda Lerner ascribes to the women's movement is equally applicable to the struggle for racial uplift. "The first step toward emancipation is self-consciousness of a distortion, a wrong: what women have been taught about the world, what they see reflected in art, literature, philosophy, and religion is not quite appropriate to them." The second phase is the questioning of tradition. The third involves "reaching out toward other women, the slow, painstaking search for sisterhood." The fourth and final phase is the emergence of a guiding ideology. Out of such community and collectivity emerges feminist consciousness--a set of ideas which not only challenges patriarchal values and assumptions, but attempts to substitute for them a feminist system of ideas and values. This process of creating feminist consciousness has something, but by no means everything, to do with the quest for women's rights, equality, and justice--it has a great deal to do with the search for autonomy. (Lerner xxiii-xxiv) This process of self-actualization is basically the same one which any oppressed group traverses in order to achieve self-consciousness. So it is only natural that black women struggling for racial recognition would similarly become more aware of the need for their own recognition within the race.

Perhaps the most prevalent element among plays of these early women playwrights is their general focus on black women working, and seemingly entrapped, in domestic situations. But the circumstances under which the protagonists perform their labor, and the manner in which their work is portrayed, lifts domesticity beyond the trivial and reinvests it with significance.

We can best understand how radical a revision this is by referencing Angela Davis's book Women, Race and Class. Davis observes that in precapitalist and pre-industrial societies the domestic setting was the site of significant economic production (224-27). Before the emergence of large-scale bakeries, textile mills, dairies, and like industries in this country, for example, domestic work amounted to domestic industry, giving (predominately) women "visible roles in economic activity outside the home" (227). From all accounts, in fact, pre-Industrial Revolution women were so busy producing that they had little time for "housework." Instead of daily or weekly cleaning, "there was spring cleaning." In addition, meals" 'were simple and repetitive; clothes were changed infrequently; and the household wash was allowed to accumulate, and the washing was done once a month, or ... once in three months ... since each required the carting and heating of water, higher standards of cleanliness were easily discouraged' " (Ehrenreich and English, qtd. in Davis 227). The visibility of "domestic economy" enabled women, in turn, to assume economic roles outside the home, such as managing sawmills, gristmills, slaughterhouses, textile and clothing stores, drug shops (women were generally the acknowledged authorities on traditional medicine), and lens-grinding shops (see Davis 226-27).

Significantly, then, Davis does not treat domestic work as inherently inferior. Instead, she explains that capitalism created displacement of production roles traditionally and pervasively held by wome (i.e., industrialization resulted in the mass production of such items as textiles, candles, soap, butter, and bread). This "fundamental structural separation between the domestic home economy and the profit-oriented economy of capitalism," and the domestic economy's inability to compete with industry to "generate profit," resulted in a redefinition of domestic labor as inferior to "capitalistic wage labor." The domestic producer was in turn reduced to the status of "housewife," whose chief role was guardian "of a devalued domestic life." Over time, this view of the "housewife" became as naturalized as its domestic complement, the "mother," and once this naturalization was completed, the patriarchal image of the domestic woman was insulated from change (227).

What we can see in the works of women playwrights of the New Negro Renaissance is a hybrid version of the view of domestic labor which Davis presents. While she may have a point in claiming that "housework" (by which she presumably means domestic work which generates no income) "has never been the central focus of black women's lives" (Davis 230-31), domestic work definitely has been. According to a 1900 federal census, 90 percent of employed African American women worked in personal or domestic service. A similar survey of New York City in 1910 indicated that 70.1 percent of all African American women still served in the previously mentioned capacities, while most of the remainder worked as waitresses, laundresses, dressmakers, or seamstresses (Thadious Davis, "Forewrod" xvii).

Thus, the roles of the black women protagonists in the plays are "pre-industrialized" by the pervasiveness of black oppression. Black men frequently could not surmount racial barriers and obtain industrial jobs. Black women, however, had marketable "traditional" skills which they could export (from the home), even when their men could find no jobs. The limited but significant sense of economic power gained from hiring out such domestic chores as sewing, ironing, and babysitting is a consistent, unannounced, yet undeniable touchstone running throughout many of the early plays such as Rachel, Plumes, They That Sit in Darkness, Color Struck, Her and Florence. I believe we may even say that early black women playwrights took a certain pride in presenting the economic obstacles facing a "mere domestic," and showing her overcome these obstacles. Significantly, although almost all the playwrights were teachers, and stressed the importance of education in their plays, teachers are not the protagonists of their plays and, by implication, neither representative nor ideal black women.

The domestic characters we see in these plays are well-crafted constructions. They invariably have domestic jobs which allow them to remain in their own domestic spaces, even when they are performing work for others outside of their spaces. Thus the spatial barriers which Trudier Harris mentions (15-16, 23-44, 116-19, and 161-73), which represent psychological barriers imposed by the patriarchy and enforced by white mistresses, are absent from the plays. Consequently, the frequent powerlessness of black domestics, often magnified by capricious and seemingly absolute displays of power inherent in spatial restriction within the white-controlled domestic space, is virtually eliminated.

Freda Scott Giles points out that most plays by these playwrights center on or significantly concern themselves with "at least one strongly delineated black woman character battling in some way for her right to self-definition" (198). And Leslie Sanders affirms the existence of a dual liberation motif by declaring that, even though the plays address the black audience as a whole, black women in the audience were the primary targets for the strong black female characters. According to Sanders, early black women playwrights "never compromise[d] their intent to honor the anguish and to challenge the prejudices of their black audiences, particularly their female audiences" (199).

It is significant that, even though the black male characters in the plays may be hindered by white power structures, the black heroines rarely fail to reach a deeper and redeeming level of self-consciousness, if not to achieve outright triumph, by the end of a play--reinforcing the notion of female affirmation as well as racial uplift. Or, to state the matter differently, just as these race heronies provide "tropic performance of verbal protestation" (i.e., signify), they simultaneously engage in "a discourse of self-affirmation in which the speaker-performer[--the heroine--is] ... a member of a community that also comprises its audience" (i.e., they also specify) (Tate 125). The dual liberation motif at work within the plays is wholly consistent with the signifying/specifying quality of African American literature.

One of the most intriguing aspects about the works of the early black women playwrights is this virtual absence of black male authority figures. This odd phenomenon can be at least partly explained by attempts to redefine the black male image. Du Bois proposed his New Negro "agitator" to provide a positive image of the strong black male which could stand in direct contrast with the preemptive white stereotypes of the "bad" black man and the Exotic Primitive. The "bad" black man (a beastly Brute, a rapist, murderer, and pillager) is a projection intended to defuse black anger by justifying any punishment, even preemptive punishment, in order to "keep the beast tamed." The Exotic Primitive, on the other hand, reinforces a childlike view of the black male, suggesting both his personal irresponsibility and the inability of black culture to produce better: A Close cousion of the Brute is the Exotic Primitive. While the driving force of the former is hatred, the mainspring of the Primitive is having a good time--wine, women, and song. He might occasionally become angry in a crap game, but his razor is always reserved for people of his own color. The Exotic Primitive is a later white creation, reaching his vogue in the late 1920s .... (Hamalian and Hatch 25)(6) Perhaps these playwrights implicitly reference Du Bois's agitator when they include an image of the strong black male. In Aftermath (1919), Mary Burrill presents the character John as an example of the assertive black male who selflessly and fearlessly confronts racial oppression. In fact, John is the only male protagonist I've encountered who actually appears on stage in these women's plays. He is also the only male character I've come across who occupies the position of primary protagonist by the play's end, though he appears late in the play. Doris Abramson suggests the willingness of the black heroines in Rachel to submit to a recollected icon of black male strength. Mrs. Loving fondly remembers her "New Negro" husband, editor of a small Negro newspaper. "He was big-bodied--big-souled. His loves were as big as his hates. You can imagine, then, how the wrongs of the Negro--ate into his soul" (Hatch 147). Unfortunatley, however, the strong black male character is "destined" to die as the result of his explicit criticism and rejection of systemic white American injustice. As Hatch states, "This is no portrait of a [']boy['] who knows how to keep his place. No wonder that in white drama influenced by the Puritan tradition he always has to be killed" (Hamalian and Hatch 24).(7)

The plan of racial uplift of black heroines follows a more pragmatic path. Public agitation is largely abandoned in favor of conditional assimilation, which enables black women to earn menial wages that may be used to prepare the next generation, educationally and economically, for the possibility of social and economic headway which strong black men attempt to wrest from the white social structure.(8) The domestic sphere, then, is implicitly recognized (i.e., is never questioned) to be the black woman's arena of strength. The black male's arena, by contrast, lies beyond the home. Thus, the virtual absence of the adult black male from the domestic sphere is "naturalized" by the ideology of racial uplift. Tensions in the home, when they occur in these plays, almost invariably result from adult male intrusion/loitering in the ideologically defined female domestic sphere. One could conversely understand why the women's attempt to assert power in the black male's public sphere was frequently discouraged ideologically within the New Negro movement.(9)

We may read the absence of black male authority figures as an acceptance of separate spheres, sustained in order to preserve the precarious position of the black male. But this interpretation does not wholly account for black male absence. These women playwrights' desire to have women heroines occupy center stage, and thus project an aura of "black woman's domain" even as the play testified for the race, was another important factor. An even more intriguing possibility is that early black women playwrights may have consciously conformed to the specific black male audience which controlled the prizes and publications, and who had defined patriarchal notions about what women should and should not say in print and on stage (Perkins, Black 3-7). This reading would suggest that the staged presence of the black female domestic was a highly sophisticated illusion, functioning on a racial, black male, and black female level. The staged reference justifying and accounting for the absence of the black male, who is "out, agitating," simultaneously secures the staged presence of the domestic heroine. If this speculation is true, then significant black male presence--a fully dimensioned, potential authority character who could be lauded or challenged in the script--could occur only after: (1) a collective sense of the black woman playwright, with her own distinct defintion of values and goals, could emerge; and (2) the black woman playwright could distance herself from immediate male influence.

As I previously mentioned, the hypothetical community of black women playwrights, loosely associated through the M Street School and the Krigwa and Howard Players, took definite shape with the advent of Georgia Douglas Johnson's S Street salon in the early 1920s. By the mid-1920s, the salon had become the dominant force in black playwriting--its female members staging many of their plays and capturing virtually every first- and second-place price offered by Opportunity and Crisis magazines, in addition to other notable prizes (Perkins, Black 1-17). It is also during this period of success that contestable male authority figures began to appear on stage. But it was not the immediate members of the salon who achieved full self-definition, for they remained in conformity with Du Bois's directives for drama.

Eulalie Spence appears to have been the first woman playwright of the Washington, D.C., group to achieve functional autonomy as a playwright. Spence, for instance, was never a member of the salon. But she definitely knew of it, and contrasted her "technique" with that of at least one of its members (105). Her association with the Krigwa Players undoubtedly exposed her to salon plays; but, more importantly, the works of the salon members probably gave Spence a precedent with which to contrast her own works. Her relatively late and sudden emergence as a playwright (at the age of thirty-two), in the midst of salon writers' successes, would suggest that her own career may have been inspired by salon successes and achievements. Spence's criticism of black drama certainly seems to have been directed toward salon drama (Perkins, Black 105, 106n1). Her very removal from the salon playwrights may have provided her with the degree of separation from the limiting definitions of W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Montgomery Gregory that allowed her to initiate a distinctly black feminist playwriting perspective (Perkins, Black 3-7; Brown-Guillory 19).

In Spence's hands, black women's drama acquires a new tension, born of an overt questioning of the black male's ability to fulfill his complementary role as co-breadwinner. Such a concern had always been implicit in earlier women's plays. In Grimke's Rachel (1916), for example, Tom Loving's inability to find or keep work contrasts with his mother's endless, sustaining sewing jobs and Rachel's own sewing and babysitting. In Johnson's Plumes (1927), Charity is determined to give her daughter Emmerline a better funeral than her husband Zeke had--suggesting that she has accumulated more since his death than was accumulated when he was the breadwinner; Emmerline's funeral will be as splendid as that which Jer' miah Gibson gave his wife (Perkins, Black 26-27). In Burrill's They That Sit in Darkness (1919), the family would starve to death were it not for the fact that Malinda Jasper supplements her husband's income, and were her daughter Lindy not to sacrifice her future education to remain home and continue as a cobreadwinner after her mother's death (67-74). Emma asserts her economic independence by refusing the money her former lover John offers her in Zora Neale Hurston's 1925 play Color Struck (101). But the implicit questioning of the black male's ability to fulfill his role as egalitarian peer had been muted by the racial content of the plays, and by the bleak reality of black male unemployment immediately following World War I. Because Spence did not subscribe to the race program (180), and because she emerges as a major playwright almost a decade after the war, her drama positions the black male's lingering economic plight starkly in the foreground.

At least two plays Spence wrote explore the possibility that black men may not regain economic stability, leaving black women in the economically superior role. Spence's 1927 play Her focuses indirectly on what black women might gain from such a situation. Pete's literal crippledness is symbolic of his economic dependency, and Spence is particularly aware of the dynamics of power inherent in this positioning: PETE: In them magazines you brung home last week there was a piece 'bout some cripple fellers--how they's learned ter make money--plenty money. Ah ain't read nuthin' so mirac'lus in a long time, Martha, an' Ah got ter thinkin'--Ah might er bin helpin' yuh all these years, ef Ah'd knowed how. MARTHA: (Clamping her electric iron down with alarming energy) Pete Alexander, ef yuh ain't got no better sense than ter pick out pieces 'bout cripples, Ah'm goin' stop bring home them no 'count books. Now doan lemme hear no more er that trash. (Perkins, Black 133) Underlying Martha's reassertion of control over the situation is her realization that Pete's economic ascendance, unaccompanied by an enlightenment as to the arbitrary nature of male/female roles within the domestic setting, could result in her subjugation, or at least dramatically reduce her power. In fact, Spence's play may be read as a dramatic feminist inversion of the patriarchal hierarchy--the woman holds economic power, and wields it over the domesticated male.

This pattern is repeated in Spence's Undertow (1929). But in this play Spence seems to be exploring what is lost between the sexes when such a reversal of economic power occurs in the black community. Charley, the shiftless son, represents one end of a spectrum, while the hardworking but unsuccessful husband Dan represents the other. Both are economic secondaries to mother and wife Hattie, who owns the house they live in. Her ownership, and the additional economic power she draws by renting rooms out to boarders, gives her uncontested economic superiority within the play. She confers money to the son, and rules the husband ruthlessly. Hattie's death makes way for Dan's reacquaintance with his "real" woman and love, Clem. But Dan chooses to turn himself in for causing Hattie's death, thus foregoing happiness with the one woman he truly loves. One implication of Undertow is that, regardless of whether the perpetrator is of color or white, male or female, the capitalist system destroys egalitarian relationships by creating a predatory hierarchy. The other implication is that equality, and even love, between the sexes can only be established outside of the frame of capitalism and its accompanying cultural impositions.

Like Spence, Marita Bonner managed to achieve a certain distance from the strict racial polemics of the salon playwrights, although unlike Spence, she was a participating member of the group. But Bonner also formally studied creative writing before being exposed to the salon writers. While attending Radcliffe, she studied under Charles Townsend Copeland, who apparently acquainted her with French surrealism and German Romanticism (Bonner xii-xiii). As a result of this exposure, the racial perspective of the salon, I would suggest, is largely grafted onto Bonner's works. In The Purple Flower (1928), for instance, there is no focal protagonist--the "agitator element" of the whole race is protagonist, consistent with a surrealist tendency to deemphasize character development in favor of montage. Bonner not only rejects the black woman's role of "domestic securer" in her plays, but is perhaps the only writer of the Renaissance to forecast the inevitability of bloody racial war in this country.

In Bonner's two other plays, she explicitly considers the relationships between black men and women. In Exit: An Illusion (1929), Bonner surveys the sexual destructiveness of the intraracial dynamics of color. Buddy, a "blackly brown" male possesses yet refuses to marry his "pale" mulatto mistress Dot. All the physical props of the play ("lace curtains," "scattered clothes, mostly lingerie," "shoes mixed with dishes on the table," "an open-couch bed," disheveled sheets and blankets, Dot tossing in half-sleep in the bed) suggest a recent sexual encounter, as well as Dot's role in the "domestic" space--she is a sexual object (Perkins, Black 200-01). Buddy accuses her of dating a white man (because she can get away with it), and hates her for doing so. We ultimately discover that the white man she has been waiting for over the course of the play is death, and that only Buddy's claiming her can keep Dot from "going out" with him. It's precisely Buddy's dehumanizing of Dot and his possessive jealousy which leads him to cast her off, thus assuring her death. Such a condemnation of black male attitudes toward the "high yaller" woman was strong stuff, even for the black stage, and probably had as much to do with the play's not being produced as its "demanding technical requirements" (Perkins, Black 190).

In The Pot Maker (1927), Bonner again pursues intraracial concerns. Bonner's earliest play, The Pot Maker exhibits the domestic setting and focus upon a female character who reflects the influence of Georgia Johnson and the salon playwrights. As in the plays of the salon playwrights, an underlying dispute over the black male's presence in the domestic sphere (that is, of not maintaining a job or fulfilling his half of an egalitarian commitment) generates the events of the play. Unlike their works, however, this play upholds no racial banner, and the female domestic at the play's center does not triumph. Lucinda's direct criticism of her husband Elias violates the rule of silence on the subject of black men held by the other female salon playwrights. Lucinda's affair (that is, her rejection of the racially defined terms of the egalitarian commitment) results in her own death, her lover's, and her husband's.(10)

Like Spence, Shirley Graham never joined the S Street salon, although she surely knew of it. Like Bonner, she brought a wealth of experience (if not formal playwriting training) with her when she moved to Washington, D.C., in the 1920s to study music at Howard. Although she occasionally broached racial themes--as in It's Morning (1940)--she was first and foremost an artist and a pragmatist (the two going together for a divorced black woman of her time with children to support and a career to pursue).

Graham's play I Gotta Home (1939) indicates that she was aware enough of the tenets of the salon playwrights to modify them. As in most of the salon plays, an egalitarian malefemale relationship is assumed, in which the male secures public space while the woman secures the home. But tension arises because of the male's presence in the household, as well as because he is perceived as having failed to secure the domestic space with his income. Following earlier examples, the domestic-in-black-woman's-space, Mrs. Cobb, defines her role largely in terms of laying a foundation for her children to build upon: ...I'll tell you why you're going on with that--that--studying. It's because you're a Dell--that's why, and Dells always amount to something. Even if I did marry a poor preacher my children are going some place in life. I thought he was going to be something--a Bishop, maybe, or something-- ... but I don't care--you're going to be somebody. (Perkins, Black 230-31) Yet Graham's stage directions leave little doubt that we should read Mrs. Cobb as harried and oppressed, and to assume as a consequence that at least the domestic element in the ideology of racial uplife does not necessarily work to the black woman's advantage: When in repose, her face is still very attractive, but she usually wears an expression of harried anxiety that spoils her appearance. She wears a house dress with dust cloth tied about her head and is carrying broom, dustpan, and brushes. Over her arm hang a number of fresh bathtowels. (226) Graham eliminates the illusion of the domestic's economic self-determination, and re-trivializes her. Her economic powerlessness is under-scored by the fact that one of her children, not she herself, pays for the broken dining room window (231). Yet--indicative of Graham's autonomy from the salon playwrights--Mrs. Cobb openly criticizes her husband for his inability to provide a stable living: For twenty years I've listened to you tellin' me why other people should have so much and we have so little--for twenty years I been seein' other men pass you one by one--while you talk, talk, talk. These other men think about their families ... their wives can have something--their children can be somebody. (264) Mrs. Cobb's ideologically defined domesticity contrasts with sister-in-law Mattie Cobb's domestic role. Again, paralleling Davis's view of domestic work before the advent of capitalism and the accompanying devaluation of such work, Mattie's role is not seen as inferior. In fact, she is given the dominant position in the play, first as the incontestable, unseen authority figure behind the stated action (giving her the equivalent of the absent male position held in earlier plays), then as the dynamic fulcrum of action, and finally as the major grantor of money (her conferral over-shadows those of the Cobb sons E.J. and Toussant, and even Reverend Cobb's non-monetary granting of the new coat). It's significant to realize that Mattie's boss was a woman, a white woman at that, who willed her an inheritance--albeit worthless (257-58).

The revelation established a mode of relationships which lies beyond capitalist, patriarchal determinations. In this alternative mode, the bonds of women may exceed the patriarchally imposed bounds of race and gender. And although the relationship between Mattie and her former employee Sadie is ostensibly hierarchical, Mattie's description of their relationship seems anything but formal. It apparently exceeds the boundaries of money (class) as well: Saide was a grand gal, the best in the world, but she never did know nothing about money. The wonderful times we've had matchin' pennies to see who'd get the last one--sleepin' in the theatre dressin' room cause the hotel was so cold--or maybe there weren't no hotel! ... Sometimes she'd give me a great roll to keep. "Bury it," she'd say, "next week we might be pressin' bricks." ... When I'd try to hold out she'd scream and yell and say I was robbin' her. Finally, I'd have to give in and off she'd go, happy as a kid and spend every dam[n] cent of it. Her long illness stripped all of us. That worried her. Till one day she made a joke of it. Looked up from her pillow and said with her wide grin. "Tell 'em," she said, "I'll leave 'em my fortune! I'll make a will!" God! She was a fool! (Roughly she wipes the back of her large hand across her eyes) (258) We can see from the above quote that the women's relationship deem-phasizes, and even devalues, money. In fact, the relationship these women have with one another ultimately exceeds even its monetary basis. Even the spatial barriers mentioned earlier are eliminated in the relationship, which contrasts with the male-female relationship, and its implied monetary basis.

Finally, our knowledge that Mattie was once a dancer and may be returning to a similar job in New York poses the possibility that the feminist domestic's position is a transitory one. Mattie manifests the unique, and radically feminist, possibility that a black woman does not have to be economically bound to a man to survive or ascend economically--that even a domestic, unhindered by husband or children, can attain a certain degree of physical and economic mobility. And we certainly shouldn't overlook the possibility of her achieving a certain social status and power as well. Consider, for instance, the visual impact that Mattie's entrance onto the stage must have had for audiences of that time, as she curses and slaps an apparently white photographer/reporter in the offstage area, and pitches him onstage to announce her entrance (251). Even if Mattie's independence is to some degree reflective of her former white employer's power, her actions nevertheless announce a revolutionary self-perception which had not occurred before among black female protagonists. Even Spence's female characters invert patriarchal oppression by castigating black males rather than confronting white characters--let alone white men. And Bonner's racial confrontation in The Purple Flower is somewhat defused by its abstractness. Through Mattie, Graham announces that the black woman, though constrained through sexism and racism, can still be psychologically equal to anyone.

The latest, and most ideologically radical, of the early "black domestic" plays is Alice Childress's Florence (1950). The progressiveness of this play can be at least partly accounted for by Childress's temporal and spatial removal from the salon writers. As important, Childress, herself a product of a working-class background, writes on the eve of new possibilities such as those Graham points to in I Gotta Home.

Florence's revolutionary nature does not lie in its plot resolution. We never know whether the daughter Florence succeeds as an actress or not. For that matter, we cannot be sure whether Mama works as a domestic or not. (She probably does; the point is that she doesn't appear as a domestic on stage.) Florence is a radical play partly because the appearance of the black domestic is absented--instead a white woman's attempt to hire Florence as a domestic rather than an actress becomes the catalyst and turning point of the play. Mrs. Carter represents the pervasiveness and depth of the racism which perpetuates black economic enslavement and concomitant notions of black inferiority. Yet she is effectively rebuffed in the play: Mama rips up the slip of paper with the prospective domestic employer's address, and ignores informing Mrs. Carter of the arrival of her train. By sending Florence the check Mama intended to use to bring Florence home, Mama aligns herself with the militant and implicitly feminist assertion her daughter is making--challenging white department stores to hire her as a very visible salesgirl, and white theater companies to hire her as an actress. Factually and symbolically, Mama's resolve insures that Florence will have the fullest opportunity to transcend the perennial role of the black woman as domestic.

The most revolutionary aspect of this play lies in its staging of a black feminist ideology. Childress propels her exclusive concerns for black women beyond strictly racial ideology. Her transcendence of black male ideological systems and perspectives is such that Childress authoritatively confronts a white audience--specifically the white female audience--which has achieved a certain degree of liberation yet can ignore the similar struggle of black women, and even help to perpetuate their economic suppression. (Mrs. Carter can travel alone, work as an actress, and become part of an economic network of white women with power to hire.) Childress also stages a debate among black women: Mama mirrors the black (and especially female) audience's possible indecision between progressive stances represented by the daughter Florence and the conservative stances of the daughter Marge. Marge's eventual departure from the stage, and Mama's decision to support Florence, amounts to nothing less than a call to blacks, particularly black women, to press for black women's economic liberation.

The final transformation takes place on a symbolic level--it is the transformation of absence. In the early plays, the black male head of the household is the absent, unquestionable authority figure. By the 1930s, we see the possibility of a black woman filling an absented, authoritative position, even if that black woman must be present on stage at some point to establish her authority (May Miller's Stragglers in the Dust [1930] and Graham's I Gotta Home). By 1950, it was possible for Childress to establish a black woman's authority without the necessity of her physical presence on stage.

The absented figure of black women's authority is a hybrid of past black female stage presences. Florence has been the patriarchally domesticated wife, with a husband and a child. She served as domestic as well, but the very fact of this early positioning gives her later role feminist import. Over the course of the play the absent Florence is defined, finally, as the emerging black feminist--primarily concerned not with pleasing black men or children, but with the pursuing economic and social equality which helps make the former considerations most satisfyingly possible.

The image of black woman as domestic was inevitable in both theater and film. But in the hands of early black women playwrights this image was transformed into a potent symbol. They inverted the negative associations of domestic work by consciously focusing both ideological and economic power in the hands of the black female domestic and her space. Over a period of roughly thirty years, black women playwrights reflected upon, illuminated, modified, and finally transformed a construction of black womanhood which evolved from a collective strategy of dual liberation, a strategy which sought to uplift the race while simultaneously validating and affirming the black woman. Finally, the image itself was liberated from its patriarchal trappings while still upholding the dream of racial liberation. And, by doing so, it captured and consolidated a black female consciousness which foreshadowed the rise of black feminism.


(1.)I will refer to a generous selection of the playwrights to illustrate my points: Angelina Weld Grimke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Mary Burrill, Zora Neale Hurston, Eulalie Spence, May Miller, Marita Bonner, Shirley Graham, and Alice Childress. I should also delineate not just who but what period I am referring to when I use the phrase early black women playwrights. I begin the period with Grimke's Rachel (1916). Despite her Victorian use of language, Grimke writes "race" ratherthan white imitation. I conclude the "early" period with Alice Childress's play Florence (1950), because her advent signals the black woman playwright's transition into general acceptance. Childress was the first black woman to win an Obie Award for an off-Broadway play, and was one of the first American black women to have her plays televised (by the BBC as early as 1955). Childress, as far as my research can discern, was also the first woman to transition from the predominately "race issue" of the "early" period (as exemplified in Florence) to the predominately "black woman's issue" (see, for example, her 1969 play Wine in the Wilderness) which has characterized the contemporary black woman's theater movement.

(2.)It is interesting to note that LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) restates the same criteria as a basis for black militant theater in the sixties: "a theater about black people, with black people, for black people and only black people" (Hamalian and Hatch 33).

(3.)See the introduction to Alain Locke's The New Negro and Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks for discussions of these stereotypes.

(4.)See Gloria Hull's chapter on Grimke in Color, Sex, and Poetry.

(5.)The Civic Club Dinner itself may be read as a fateful intersection of racism and sexism. The gathering was originally organized to honor the publication of Jesse Redmon Fauset's There is Confusion. But the master of ceremonies, Alain Locke, focused on other artists of the movement, avoiding mention of either Fauset or her book. As Thadious Davis summarizes it, "The maneuver undermined Fauset's position among the authors, many of whom she had mentored; it further meant that in the next three dynamic years, the influential leaders in the literary movement were all males, some of whom, like Locke, were not only male chauvinists but misogynists" ("Foreword" xxiii-xxiv).

I would suggest that Locke's stunt had even greater repercussions. By redirected the focus of the Renaissance, the white entrepreeurs unconsciously guaranteed the movement's demise as well. The race-identified artistic progress which had gone on for at least nine years without a significant monetary base (we may extend a race-conscious art program at least as far back as Du Bois's formation of the NAACP Drama Committee in 1915) was suddenly coopted as a purely money-making venture. Racial uplift became not a secondary consideration, but an unimportant. Predictably, when the money dried up, the "movement" collapsed. The Renaissance was literally "sold out."

(6.)Hatch uses the terms baad (fine, admirable), bad ("white" or literal meaning), and Exotic Primitive (Hamalian and Hatch 23-25). I substitute New Negro agitator for baad black man, not because they have identical meanings, but because the early agitator serves the same discursive purpose as the later baad black man. I suggest, in fact, that the latter is a conflation of the racially purposeful agitation of Du Bois and the white explotation of the black male Exotic Primitive of the sixties and seventies. The "baad black man" is racially conscious, but because he lives in an urban jungle and is existentially isolated (he cannot easily engage in constructive community actions), his racial assertions are always edged with destruction, and his accomplishements, though they may reach mythic proportions, tend ultimately toward temporal insignificance.

(7.)The "necessary death" of a transgressive black male hero isn't limited to white literature. The black heroes of Imperium in Imperiod and Native Son are just as surely condemned to death by their black authors. The hero and heroine of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Sula respectively are condemned as well, but because they transgress black social mores rather than white mores. Interestingly, Hurston spares her heroine Janie from condemnation. (The trial is a metaphoric projection of the black mores she and Tea Cake have violated. Black mores--personified in the black members of the court audience--condemn her, while the white members of the jury do not, since Janie has not violated white mores. But the violation of black social codes demands a death, which Tea Cake has already paid--after all, he drew Janie from her "rightful" place and caused her to be the focus of social disapprobation.) The hero of Imperium is condemned twice to death by the author--first for transgressing white mores, and the second time for transgressing black mores.

The phenomenon of "necessary death" in literature (or mythology, for that matter) is a direct consequence of a culture's power to impose an ideology, or a collective will to power, upon the writer. The more expressly defined the ideological projection of cultural power, the more probable that ideological transgression will result in the "necessary death" of the transgressor. The potency of the ideology may even affect how the author must portray the "necessary death." For instance, Bigger Thomas faces death by human hands (in a court of white law). Janie, destined to be killed for violating black mores, is saved by the more pervasive ideology of white law. Tea Cake and Sula die natural deaths, suggesting a certain diffuseness of a still potent black social ideology at work. In Imperium, an early militancy novel, black militant ideology is given ascendance over white ideology. Belton, the hero, is shot by white supremacists (white ideology demands this agitator's death) but does not die and, in fact, kills one of his would-be assassins. In the subsequent trial, he is ultimately acquitted through the efforts of his friend, a famous black lawyer (black ideology is placed above white). However, Belton is finally executed for transgressing the "rules" of the black brotherhood. Even they realize the uselessness of the execution, and give Belton ample opportunity to escape. But Belton feels compelled by his ideological commitment to return for his execution, just as the executors feel compelled to carry out the wasteful execution of this notable black leader.

(8.)As Claudia Tate points out, this notion of "egalitarian peer relationships between the sexes" extends at least as far back as Pauline Hopkins's Contending Forces ("Reshuffling" 131). It's more than possible that these educators-turned-playwrights read Hopkins--an approximate contemporary, and a leader in the black women's club movement--and adapted her transformative model of black male-female relationships to their Du Boisian artistic scheme.

(9.)An interesting variation on sex roles occurs in some black male playwrights' use of female domestics. Male playwrights sometimes write their female domestics in the (male) agitator role. In Joseph S. Mitchell's Help Wanted (1929), Nora refuses jobs when they violate her perception of self and her principles, and directly confronts the secretary at the agency who hires her when she believes she's been unfairly used. In Owen Vincent Dodson's The Shining Town (1937), Mrs. Peterson also asserts pride, initially refusing to accept the disparaging offers of potential hirers (although she later capitulates). Important as well is the fact that the events of this domestic play take place outside black-female-defined space, where the black woman can consequently be victimized. In this manner, Dodson's play is at great variance with the works of the salon women playwrights (excepting Bonner's). In Willis Richardson's Compromise (1925), Jane seizes the gun she'd originally hidden from her son, and sets out to seek revenge for a racially related injustice.

(10.)See n7.

Works Cited

Abramson, Doris E. "Angelina Weld Grimke, Mary T. Burrill, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Marita Bonner: An Analysis of Their Plays." Sage 2.1 (1985): 9-13.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continuum, 1989.

Bonner, Marita. Frye Street and Environs: The Collected Works of Marita Bonner. Ed. Joyce Flynn and Joyce Occomy Stricklin. Boston: Beacon, 1987.

Bontemps, Arna, ed. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd, 1972.

Brown, Janet. Feminist Drama: Definition and Critical Analysis. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1979.

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, ed. Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Westport: Greenwood, 1990.

Davis, Angela. Women, Race and Class. New York: Random, 1981.

Davis, Thadious M. "Foreword." There is Confusion. By Jessie Redmon Fauset. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989. v-xxvi.

Du Bois, W. E. B. "Criteria of Negro Art." Crisis 32 (Oct. 1926): 296.

--. "Krigwa Players Little Negro Theater." Crisis 32 (July 1926): 134.

Giles, Freda Scott. Rev. of Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, ed. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory. Black American Literature Forum 25 (1991): 197-98.

Griggs, Sutton. Imperium in Imperio. 1889. New York: AMS, 1975.

Hamalian, Leo, and James V. Hatch, eds. The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991.

Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple Up, 1982.

Hatch, James V., ed. Black Theater USA: 45 Plays by Black Americans, 1847-1974. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Hopkins, Pauline E. Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. 1900. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Hudlin, Warrington. "The Renaissance Re-Examined." Bontemps 268-77.

Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Kellner, Bruce, ed. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. Westport: Greenwood, 1984.

Kornweibel, Theodore Jr. "Theophilus Lewis and Theater of the Harlem Reaissance." Bontemps 171-89.

Lerner, Gerda. The Female Experience. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.

Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. 1925. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

McKay, Nellie. "Black Theater and Drama in the 1920s: Years of Growing Pains." Massachusetts Review 28.4 (1987): 615-26.

--. "'What Were They Saying?': Black Women Playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance." The Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined. Ed. Victor Kramer. New York: AMS, 1987. 129-48.

Miller, Jeanne-Marie A. "Angelina Weld Grimke: Playwright and Poet." CLA Journal 21 (1978): 513-24.

Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Perkins, Kathy A. Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays before 1950. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

--. "The Unknown Career of Shirley Graham." Freedomways 25 (Jan. 1985): 7-17.

Sanders, Leslie Catherine. Rev. of Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays before 1950, ed. Kathy Perkins. Black American Literature Forum 25 (1991): 199-200.

Spence, Eulalie. "A Criticism of the Negro Drama." Opportunity 28 June 1928: 180.

Tate, Claudia. "Reshuffling the Deck; or (Re)Reading Race and Gender in Black Women's Writing." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 7.1 (1988): 119-32.

Wilkerson, Margaret B. Rev. of Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America, by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory; People Who Led to My Plays, by Adrienne Kennedy; and Totem Voices: Plays from the Black World Repertory, ed. Paul Carter Harrison. Theatre Journal 43.1 (1991): 125-28.

Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

Wright, Richard. 1940. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1986.
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Title Annotation:Black Women's Culture Issue
Author:Harris, Will
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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