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Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre.

Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 632 pp. $110.00.

Long before Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman coined the phrase the fabulous invalid as the title of their 1938 play, African American theatre, following Hart and Kaufman's characterization of all theatre, could reasonably have been considered the invalid of the "fabulous invalid." For Hart and Kaufman, the theatre was both fabulous and an invalid because it had managed to limp along for more than a few millennia amid predictions of its imminent demise in almost every century of its existence. Black theatre, as Hill and Hatch reveal the length and breadth of its American story, seems not fabulous but almost miraculous in its ability to survive the well-documented slings and arrows of American race relations. In this respect and for those studying human psychology and general cultural studies, A History of African American Theatre, albeit indirectly, makes a sweeping argument that what can be called a human dramatic imperative goes beyond the temporal political and social concerns that have dominated much postmodern and post-postmodern theatre studies and practice. Apparently, people will do theatre in whatever circumstances they find themselves.

For most of us, scholars and artists alike, in the under-documented field popularly labeled "Black Theatre," it is difficult to respond to this voluminous book on black theatre history over the last two and a half centuries without at least an intimation of awe and reverence. Not surprisingly, the "Foreword" in this book is summed up by veteran stage director and theatre educator Lloyd Richards in nearly reverential terms: "Every black person who aspires to a life in the theatre should be fortified with a knowledge of his/her past as his or her rite of passage. And every white child should have knowledge of the vigor and diversity of the theatre in America as we join in creating a true American theatre." Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how one involved in any aspect of American cultural studies lacking at least a working knowledge of the contents of this book can gain much more than an apartheid view of his or her particular field of study.

Hill and Hatch, and their Cambridge editors, appear to have conceived this work as nothing less than a bible of African American theatre. What they have achieved is the first historical source book of this magnitude to be published in the field. In the early chapters of the book, most scholars in the field would expect to find William Brown and his African Theatre in New York, James Hewlett, and Ira Aldrige. But Hill treats these subjects with an almost stunning comprehensiveness and grace, then adds information about two little-known nineteenth-century black theaters in New Orleans, another in Baltimore, and The Church Street Theatre "built in New York by colored folk." Similarly, in chapter three, using primary as well as secondary sources, Hill deepens his treatment of little-known nineteenth-century black theatre artists, reporting on, to name just a few, the lives and work of Morgan Smith, James Molyneaux, Cecelia Williams, George Bell, and the better-known Hyers Sisters.

"American Minstrelsy in Black and White," chapter four, is of special significance, too. Here Hatch's extensive research and unrelenting, straightforward reporting reveal a part of black American theatre history that, despite its contemporary "politically incorrect" connotations, highlights what Hatch calls "the weave of racial cultures." And, perhaps more importantly, this chapter underscores the defining African American presence in the most popular genre of American theatre in the last half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. In short, here Hatch brings a scholarly perspective to a subject matter that is often met with--even in some academic circles--an understandable but nevertheless distorting emotionalism.

Hatch's straightforward dissemination of extensive research is re-employed in his chapter on black "Educational Theatre." In the late 1930s, W. E. B. Du Bois and Randolph Edmonds felt that the entire African American cultural project should be removed to the potentially nurturing environment of black colleges and universities, away from the commercialism and prejudice of mainstream arts institutions and theatre venues. Alain Locke had advocated such a policy regarding the development of black theatre in the early 1920s, and Randolph founded the 1930s movement to expand the role of theatre in historically black colleges. Du Bois and Locke were likely black America's most influential spokesmen on cultural matters in the first third of the twentieth century. And the sheer weight of information in Hatch's "Education Theatre" chapter reveals the results of their and Randolph's positions on the subject, codifying the large role that educational theatre has played in African American theatre history.

Just as the scholarship in "Educational Theatre" raises the overriding, if unstated, issue of black theatre's survival in historically hostile circumstances, Hill's "The Caribbean Connection," chapter nine, raises the much undertreated issue of black cultural diversity. Here Hill reports on the grossly underreported contributions of what he calls "the Anglophone Caribbean" to African American theatre. But his contribution can only be fully appreciated when one acknowledges that, since the beginning of chattel slavery, there has been a prevailing white belief in a black American cultural monolith. Curiously, this largely racist belief is adhered to more or less by the strange bedfellows of a wing of a contemporary black movement to establish an international "Black Diaspora," an entity united because of its oppression rather than segmented by its cultural diversity. The black cultural diversity issue is still very much in play.

A History of African American Theatre does have its imperfections.

Accomplishing a work of this scope without flaws is likely a human impossibility. In the "Introduction" and chapter one, Hill's apparent devotion to the general African American history of slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow period seems not to keep in view his specific area of expertise. The reader who remembers the title of the book may wonder when the discussion of black theatre will begin. In the "c. 1898" photograph on p. 151 (Hill's chapter four), the man next to Robert Cole does not quite resemble Rosamund Johnson as the caption reads; he is most probably Cole's partner until 1900, the noted performer and impersonator Billy Johnson. Most historians agree that Rosamund Johnson (and his brother James Weldon Johnson) did not meet Cole until he arrived in New York in 1900. In 1898, Billy Johnson, not Rosamund, starred with Cole on Broadway in their groundbreaking Negro musical comedy A Trip to Coontown; this photograph is likely related to that event.

Further, in this book, Hatch does write an occasional unqualified superlative, such as "the ... Colored Museum (1986), a revue that would change the face of African American theatre...." In fact, George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum was preceded by almost twenty years by another black satirical revue, Hip, Black, and Angry (1968), produced by Roger Furman's Harlem company The New Heritage Repertory Theater. But the subject of that revue's satire was racism, not the admittedly overworked themes in much black theatre of the period, which, of course, made it a much less palatable show to mainstream audiences than was its successor The Colored Museum.

But even the missteps in A History of African American Theatre teach us something. Hip, Black, and Angry toured parts of the Northeast, playing in churches and other small black theatre venues and was strongly supported by Nikki Giovanni, a major black woman poet of the period. But reports of the show only appeared in small out-of-town presses whose columns, thirty years after the fact, are seldom retrievable even by the most ardent researcher. (I am aware of the show only because I happened to be a member of Furman's Harlem company during the period.) Hatch's superlative problem explicates the problem of underdocumentation in the field. And this problem, in varying degrees, applies to all aspects of African American history, a circumstance that may, in the long run, justify Hill's initial treatment of slavery and the Jim Crow period. Finally, the almost humorous confusion with the Johnsons, Rosamund and Billy, seems inadvertently to have produced the only extant photograph of Billy Johnson, a seminal figure in early Negro musical comedy.

It is reasonably clear that A History of African American Theatre, despite its imposing scale, has been designed to ask more questions than it answers. "One of their most important discoveries is that they [Hill and Hatch] have just begun to tap the vein," writes Lloyd Richards in his "Foreword." Above all, this book is an invitation to others to continue the more than eighty years of scholarship that its authors have collectively given to the field.

Henry Miller

Yonkers, NY
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Author:Miller, Henry (German rancher)
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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