Liberty censored: black living newspapers of the Federal Theatre Project.
The Federal Theatre's fictional dramas often dealt with racial issues. J. A. Smith and Peter Morell's Turpentine (New York, 1936) exposed the wrongs of the Southern labor-camp system, while Theodore Browne's Natural Man (Seattle, 1937), about the legendary John Henry, showed African Americans being worked to death on labor gangs. Hughes Allison's courtroom drama The Trial of Dr. Beck (Newark, 1937) dealt with the implications of racial hatred and self-hatred. And Theodore Ward's Big White Fog (Chicago, 1938) depicted African American society as divided among belief in the American dream, the Marcus Garvey Back-to-Africa movement, and socialism.
In fact, three living newspapers about African Americans were completed, and at least one more was proposed, but not a single one was produced. Were the authors too unknown? Was the quality of their work too low? Were their staging requirements too complex or expensive? Was there insufficient audience for them? Was there a problem with the living-newspaper form itself? And was there, officially or unofficially, consciously or unconsciously, some sort of racially based censorship?
Elmer Rice, a Broadway director and the author of The Adding Machine (1923), Street Scene (1929), and other successful plays, proposed the first living newspaper about race relations. Rice, of Eastern European Jewish descent, was the first head of the New York office of the Federal Theatre, but he resigned in 1936 to protest the censorship by the government of the living newspaper Ethiopia, about Mussolini's invasion of that country. Before his resignation, Rice proposed and wrote an outline for a living newspaper with contemporary American racial subject matter. He planned a show "that would expose the common practice of lynching Negroes and also the plight of the sharecroppers" (Abramson 65). The left-leaning director Joseph Losey also was probably involved in planning this play.
The staff of the living newspaper office researched and put together a preliminary draft in twelve scenes: Called The South, it is clearly a work-in-progress. The play opens with Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation, and closes with Angelo Herndon, a Black labor organizer, calling on his comrades - and the audience - to join in the fight of all workers against the international capitalist conspiracy. In between, it covers such racially charged matters as the Scottsboro case, separate-and-unequal educational allotments, the flogging of integrationists, and the Senate's anti-lynching bill; largely unconnected matters such as constitutional challenges to the Tennessee Valley Authority are treated as well.
The draft of The South has none of the earmarks of the best living newspapers, such as a narrator, a "common-man" character who acts as the audience's representative on stage, or scenes that put current issues into focus through vaudeville-like techniques. Unlike other living newspapers, the script contains no footnotes or bibliography, despite the fact that virtually every one of its scenes quotes prominent political figures. Lorraine Brown, the Director of the Institute on the Federal Theatre Project at George Mason University, has called it "ponderous" and "not a skillful living newspaper," though with much further work, it might have become producible. For reasons that remain unclear, despite Rice's celebrity and track record, the play was shelved by the Federal Theatre after Rice's departure (L. Brown, interview).
Presumably, no one had any doubts about Rice's ability to oversee the crafting of a decent play. More likely, this rejection - and those of later, more polished living newspapers on comparable subjects - is attributable to the political winds of the time, to the structure of the New Deal coalition, and to the nature of the living newspaper itself. The South in the 1930s remained solidly Democratic, but many of its representatives, such as Mississippi's now-infamous Senator Bilbo and Congressman Rankin, were racists who blocked every attempt to pass bills helpful to African Americans. Most telling, in 1922, 1937, and again in 1940, the House passed anti-lynching bills - which, however, died in the Senate because of threatened Southern filibusters (Blaustein and Zangrando 351). In addition, the left-wing political parties of this period were the only ones that took strong positions opposing racism; as a result, red-baiters often accused supporters of civil rights of being communists. It seems quite possible, even likely, then, that the New Deal coalition, the WPA, and the Federal Theatre itself might have been endangered had the Federal Theatre produced a play about the evils of lynching.
But why would a living newspaper be rejected when equally spirited fictional dramas were produced? To answer this, it is helpful to consider the nature of the living-newspaper form. Traditional plays, like court jesters who have the sole right to criticize the King, hide their truths behind the mask of fiction. Living newspapers, on the other hand, purport to depict reality itself: They drop (or at least affect to drop) this mask, and by so doing they lose their immunity from accountability. Like any mimetic representation, living newspapers are artists' selections and arrangements of reality; like the docudramas of today's television, they pretend to truth. As a form, therefore, they are immediate, direct, and - when treating controversial subjects - politically dangerous.
The first living newspaper about racial issues to get past a first draft was written in early 1938. Its author, Ward Courtney, was a young white playwright, originally from Vermont, who worked in the Federal Theatre's Hartford, Connecticut office, which housed one of the Negro Theatre units. His Trilogy in Black, "a modern tragedy on the Greek pattern," inspired by Aeschylus's Agamemnon and Euripides' Electra, had closed after a single performance in Hartford the previous June. Invoking the stereotypical natural talent of African Americans, Courtney wrote in the dedication that
the Negro is gifted from the start in presenting stylized drama on our modern stage....He is free of the complex tradition of the White upon the stage. He ceases to be a man and becomes the universal of his part with natural ease. (qtd. in L. Brown, unpub. art.)
Courtney's living newspaper, called Stars and Bars, was based on the history and current status of Blacks in the Hartford area and was specifically intended to be performed in Hartford. The title refers both to the flag of the Confederacy, and to the impediments - "bars" - to freedom implicit in American society.
Stars and Bars, like most other living newspapers, consists largely of dramatizations of history and current events, and concludes with a call to action. Many factual details of the script are footnoted - the references culled from nearly a score of books, newspapers, and city records. A Loudspeaker is used for exposition, continuity, and, occasionally, as a character in its own right. The generic "little man" of other living newspapers is replaced with a well-known regional type, the Connecticut Yankee.
In the opening scene, the Loudspeaker announces that the enslavement of African people for work in the Americas was wrong, but the Yankee argues that African Americans have done "pretty well" in Connecticut since the state abolished slavery in 1784. The rest of the play consists of the Loudspeaker, in reply, showing the Yankee a series of historical vignettes illustrating the plight of African Americans in Connecticut. For example, an educator's school is forced to close in 1834 after she admits Black children. Later, a group of Africans on the slave ship Amistad overthrow their captors and eventually return to Africa by order of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Contemporary problems are also depicted concerning slums, housing discrimination, and community organizing. Toward the end of the play, in the most dramatic scene, a personified Death character leads Syphilis, Tuberculosis, Pneumonia, and Infant Mortality in a macabre waltz: Together, the four diseases seize Black children from their horrified parents and toss them heartlessly offstage. In the penultimate scene, the script calls for actors to personify more than a dozen current city officials, political groups, and clergymen, and to quote verbatim their positions on racial discrimination, most of which range from non-committal to downright racist. In an optimistic ending typical of the period, the play concludes with Blacks and whites united, marching off to confront Hartford's Mayor.
An evaluation of Stars and Bars, dated 24 February 1938, was prepared by Converse Tyler, the supervisor of the National Service Bureau's Playreading Department in New York. Tyler concluded that the play handled the living-newspaper form "pretty well" - although his comments reveal that he himself barely understood the form. He complained that much of the first act needed trimming; that "there are scenes where the Loudspeaker is practically the whole show," when "the action stops dead and is replaced by talk"; and that the waltz of the diseases is "a little immature and smacking of the ancient morality play." He felt it "a pity that Mr. Courtney felt obliged to confine his negro living newspaper to such a limited background" as Hartford, because with a broadened scope the play might have been of interest to other Federal Theatre units around the country. Tyler concluded that, once the suggested changes were made, the play "should be of considerable interest" to the Hartford audience, and recommended the play "with reservations."
Little more is known of the fate of Stars and Bars. There is no record of any performance. Perhaps Courtney never made the revisions Tyler called for. Perhaps the Hartford schedule was already filled. Or perhaps, to advance the most likely explanation, the scene in which Hartford's leaders' reprehensible positions on racial issues are quoted made production of the play simply too dangerous for the Hartford Negro Unit. Other produced living newspapers, including Triple-A Plowed Under and One-Third of a Nation, had used this same technique, and had suffered considerable criticism from the politicians they had quoted.
A more ambitious and successful living newspaper about racial issues was also written in 1938, by a team of two talented, young African American writers, Abram Hill and John Silvera. Hill joined the Federal Theatre as a play reader. "My particular job," he later said, "was to scrutinize scripts with Negro characters or Negro themes to see that these were true ... portrayals of Negro life" (Hill, interview 2). After the Federal Theatre was shut down, Hill would co-found and direct the American Negro Theatre, which helped launch the careers of many major African American performers, including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Ruby Dee. While at the Federal Theatre, however, in late 1937 or early 1938, at his supervisor's suggestion, Hill began work on a living newspaper on Black history (Fraser; Hill, interview; Hill, resume).
Unlike Hill, who was seriously pursuing a career in the theatre, Silvera later said that he joined the Federal Theatre "not because of an overpowering interest in the theatre itself," but because it was "an opportunity to do something interesting and still, of course, earn a living." Likeable and outgoing, Silvera worked first as an "adjective man," or advance publicity agent, for traveling shows, including Orson Welles's "Voodoo" Macbeth. Silvera, a Republican who later worked for Nelson Rockefeller (L. Brown, interview), was made a play reader by the Federal Theatre's National Service Bureau, which charged him "to weed out anything that was unjust or unproduceable [sic] or too militant." He became interested in writing plays, and was introduced to Hill to work on the living newspaper about Black history (Silvera).
Hill and Silvera consciously patterned their work after One-Third of a Nation, which had been workshopped in the summer of 1937 at Vassar and which, in January 1938, had opened to rave notices at New York's Adelphi Theatre (Buttitta and Witham 161-64). In good living-newspaper style, Hill compiled a bibliography for the play of almost 100 factual sources, ranging from newspaper articles to history books to NAACP annual reports to Supreme Court decisions (Hill, "Bibliography"). The playwrights entitled their work-in-progress Liberty Deferred. Apparently, like Langston Hughes in his later poem Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hill and Silvera saw the American dream not as denied outright to African Americans, but as postponed to some indefinite and unacceptable future.
Like other living newspapers, Liberty Deferred consists of a series of short vaudeville-like scenes, and a narrator who speaks through a loudspeaker. However, instead of a single "little man" as the audience's representative on stage, Liberty Deferred has two young couples, one white (Jimmy and Mary Lou) and one Black (Ted and Linda). While touring Manhattan island, they learn and argue about the history and current status of African Americans, while observing almost forty scenes. These cover the early slave trade, the economics of tobacco and cotton production, constitutional and congressional debates on slavery, Denmark Vesey's revolt, abolitionism, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the Dred Scott case, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and African Americans in the armed forces in World War I.
The style of most of Liberty Deferred's scenes is fairly representational. Like Stars and Bars and other living newspapers, however, as it nears its conclusion it grows increasingly symbolic, vaudevillian, even surreal at times. A huge United States map appears, covered with little doors - one for each state - out of which actors' heads pop, in blackface for the segregated states, and in white for the others. A character named Jim Crow steps out of the scenes and into the frame of the two touring couples, demonstrating for them how his power to segregate extends not only throughout the South, but even to New York City. Most memorable of all is the depiction of "Lynchotopia," a final destination for lynching victims, somewhere between heaven and hell. In it, lynching victims are graded by the egregiousness of the violations of their constitutional rights: The winner is a man who in 1934 was dragged across state lines to his execution site, had his lynching advertised on the radio, and had excursion trains scheduled for the convenience of curious onlookers. Silvera, who hatched the idea for Lynchotopia, later explained,
nothing is more effective than ridicule and humor. And I think that people get tired of the serious preaching about some of the things that are wrong, civil wrongs. And if you can laugh them out of existence, maybe you'd do a more effective job. (Silvera, interview)
The play closes with a depiction of a meeting of A. Philip Randolph's National Negro Congress, at which sharecroppers, Black workers, and white workers unite in a single call for liberty and the enforcement of the Constitution. As the curtain falls, all join in the anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."
For the better part of 1938, it looked as if Liberty Deferred would be produced. George Kondolf, the Federal Theatre's director for New York City, in a letter dated 22 June 1938, referred to "a Living Newspaper on the history of the Negro in the United States" - almost certainly Liberty Deferred - that was "in preparation," and "will be ready for production in the fall." By August, 1938, however, the Federal Theatre's political fortunes began to flicker. As if warming up for the McCarthy period, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Martin Dies of Texas, launched a shameless "investigation" of communist infiltration of the Federal Theatre. Prominent among the plays cited as "red" were the living newspapers (Mathews 198-202).
The only surviving Federal Theatre reader's report on Liberty Deferred is a generally negative one, dated 20 August 1938 - coincidentally or not, the same day a New York Daily News headline blared "WPA Theatre Faces Probe as 'Hotbed of Reds'" (Mathews 205). The report shows a lack of understanding of the living-newspaper form, as well as apprehension of plays about race. Signed only "M. S." (what appears to be a name, perhaps "Swiafsky," is also scrawled on the sheet), the report calls Liberty Deferred "not as strong a script as the subject matter warrants. It is fair; but merely to call it fair when the theme demands strong treatment is not sufficient." The report complains - incredibly, in light of the propagandistic living newspapers that had already been produced successfully - that the play is too subjective. It suggests that, instead of a plea for tolerance, "the emphasis should be that white skins and black skins conceal the same thoughts, desires, ambitions, and hopes." In terms of style, the report complains that "the announcer has too large a part," and that "comedy is not the best medium to introduce a subject that can be so starkly dramatic as lynching." The report concludes without a production recommendation, noting that "at best the action is spotty; some parts are exceptionally good and some parts are poor."
This was not the universal opinion, however. According to the Negro Arts Committee's later report "The Negro and the Federal Theatre Project," in the fall of 1938, a meeting of the Federal Theatre's regional directors was held in New York. At that meeting, Emmet Lavery, the director of the National Service Bureau and a playwright himself, "stated that Liberty Deferred was a play the National Service Bureau was indeed proud to recommend." Shortly thereafter, publicity regarding Liberty Deferred was officially released to the press.
Nevertheless, the play's progress in the Federal Theatre's bureaucracy quickly stalled. Perhaps to help grease the wheels, on 10 December 1938, Dan Burley, the drama critic for the New York Amsterdam News, published a review of the unproduced script. Hailing "two of our most promising young writers" for crafting a "highly informative" play "done in the best living newspaper manner," Burley noted with approval the prominence it gave "to Dr. Charles H. Houston, A. Phillip Randolph, and others on the present race fight front." He concluded that Liberty Deferred was "a singularly thought-provoking piece of propaganda and a valuable contribution to Negro literature, whether it reaches the stage or not."
The following day, 11 December 1938, Hill wrote to Flanagan, enclosing Burley's review and asking her to read the play and to help bring it "to life behind the footlights ... right up in Harlem." On 19 December, Flanagan replied to Hill's letter, thanking him while stating that "I cannot read this script immediately, but I shall do so as soon as possible."(1)
Liberty Deferred died not with a bang, but a whimper. On 27 March 1939, a brief complaining of discrimination against Blacks in the New York office of the Federal Theatre was drawn up by a group calling itself the Negro Arts Committee. In its section on plays, the brief correctly charged that most Federal Theatre plays about Blacks were actually written by white playwrights; that the New York City Federal Theatre "cannot receive credit for having launched one Negro playwright upon a career as a dramatist"; and that, although Liberty Deferred had been "acclaimed as worthwhile for production," it was now "lost in red-tape."
Sometime in early 1939, Emmet Lavery appears to have officially removed Liberty Deferred from consideration. The pressures Lavery may have felt - personal aesthetics, orders from above, bureaucratic foot-dragging, fear of political reprisals - we can no longer know, but he later wrote that, while he had believed in Liberty Deferred early on, when he read the finished script he "felt definitely that it did not bear out the high hopes [he] had for it" (Abramson 65). Years later, Lorraine Brown interviewed Lavery, who claimed to have no memory of Liberty Deferred at all; she concluded that "it looks like a pretty clear case of something being killed" (T. Brown). Rena Fraden, in her new study Blueprints for a Black Federal Theatre, 1935-1939, has plausibly suggested that "perhaps [Lavery] lost confidence not in the play but in the play's possible effect on an audience" (107).
Liberty Deferred is indeed a powerful play. The existing drafts have rough edges, and production would probably require considerable trimming. Yet the basic concept of the play is sound, its execution skillful, and some of its scenes - especially the more surreal ones - are the equal of anything in the produced living newspapers. Because of its controversial theme, though, it never came "to life behind the footlights." Indeed, it never even received a public reading until 1980.
The Federal Theatre was closed down by Congress in June, 1939, but as late as May, the organization was still considering - and still rejecting - living newspapers on racial issues. A 17 May 1939 memo shows that Emmet Lavery had suggested putting together a living newspaper set in the Reconstruction period, "starting with the assassination of Lincoln and going up to the Hayes-Tilden election." Such a play would almost certainly have dealt with the new challenges faced by recently freed slaves, including carpetbagging, share-cropping, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. However, Josef Lentz, the Federal Theatre's regional director for the South, "decided that such a play could not be used in his region" - presumably Lentz felt the play would be too inflammatory - so this proposal too was scrapped, as would be the Federal Theatre itself, barely six weeks later.
Three completed living-newspaper scripts about African Americans - the best of which was by African American playwrights - were passed over by the Federal Theatre organization, and a proposal by a respected white playwright was rejected outright. The demise of The South was likely due to the politics surrounding Elmer Rice's departure from the Federal Theatre. Stars and Bars' uneven quality may have been its problem, although the script could certainly have been salvaged; a more likely explanation may lie in the Federal Theatre bureaucracy's fear of political reprisals by the civic leaders whose positions on racial matters the play quotes. Liberty Deferred is a superb, though overly long, treatment of America's racial history; like Stars and Bars, its long, slow death may have been caused by the WPA's political vulnerability and the structure of the New Deal coalition, which relied on conservative Southern Democrats. And Emmet Lavery's proposal may have been rejected for a similar reason: It could have upset the South and, with the South, the New Deal apple cart. So, while there is no "smoking gun" indicating censorship, the pattern inevitably points that way: A series of fictional plays with racial themes were produced, and a series of living newspapers - one of them excellent - with similar themes were shuffled around the bureaucracy until the Federal Theatre was no more.
In addition, all these plays may have suffered from the very power of their genre. The living-newspaper form drops the shield of fiction, confronting issues not as imaginative or Platonic concepts, but as questions of immediate concern to a living, breathing audience. The Federal Theatre dared to drop the shield to present agriculture, housing, labor relations, public health, and other controversial subjects on stage. But race was and is among the most visceral, emotional, and divisive issues in America. So in the case of race, at least, the Federal Theatre organization appears to have felt safer performing with its shield raised high.
1. On 12 December 1938, Flanagan's secretary, Marion Brooks, had promised to bring Hill's letter "to Mrs. Flanagan's attention upon her return to the New York office."
Abramson, Doris. Negro Playwrights and the American Theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia UP, 1967.
Blaustein, Albert P., and Robert L. Zangrando, eds. Civil Rights and the Black American. New York: Washington Square, 1968.
Brooks, Marion. Letter to Abram Hill. 12 Dec. 1938. "Negro Theatre, 1935-1938," Box 16. National Archives, Washington, DC.
Brown, Lorraine. Telephone interview. 24 July 1994.
-----. Unpublished article. N.d.
Brown, Theodore. Transcript of interview with Lorraine Brown. 22 Oct. 1975. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
Burley, Dan. New York Amsterdam News 10 Dec. 1938. "Negro Theatre, 1935-38," Box 16. National Archives, Washington, DC.
Buttitta, Tony, and Barry Witham. Uncle Sam Presents. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982.
Courtney, Ward. Stars and Bars. Unpublished ms. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
Flanagan, Hallie. Letter to Abram Hill. 19 Dec. 1938. "Negro Theatre, 1935-1938," Box 16. National Archives, Washington, DC.
Fraden, Rena. Blueprints for a Black Federal Theatre, 1935-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Fraser, Gerald C. "Abram Hill, Director, Is Dead; Founded Theater in Harlem." New York Times 11 Oct. 1986: 13.
Hill, Abram. Letter to Hallie Flanagan. 11 Dec. 1938. "Negro Theatre, 1935-1938," Box 16. National Archives, Washington, DC.
-----. "Liberty Deferred. Bibliography." Federal Theatre Project Folder 1031. National Archives, Washington, DC.
-----. Resume. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
-----. Transcript of interview with Lorraine Brown. 27 Feb. 1977. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
Kondolf, George. Letter. 22 June 1938. "Negro Theatre, 1935-38," Box 16. National Archives, Washington, DC.
Lentz, Joseph. Memorandum. Box 651.312, New York City, National Service Bureau, Jan.-22 May 1939. National Archives, Washington, DC.
Living Newspaper Staff. The South. Unpublished ms. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
Mathews, Jane DeHart. The Federal Theatre, 1935-1939. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967.
McDermott, Douglas. "The Living Newspaper as a Dramatic Form." Modern Drama 8.1 (1965): 82-94.
Negro Arts Committee. "The Negro and the Federal Project No. 1 (WPA Arts Projects) for New York City: A Brief." 27 March [1939?]. National Office, General Correspondence, Box 16. National Archives, Washington, DC.
Silvera, John. Transcript of interview with Lorraine Brown. 11 July 1977. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
Silvera, John, and Abram Hill. Liberty Deferred. Unpublished ms. Container 694. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
S[wiafsky?], M. Evaluation of Liberty Deferred. 20 Aug. 1938. Folder 241. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
Tyler, Converse. Evaluation of Stars and Bars. 24 Feb. 1938. Container 317. Federal Theatre Archive. George Mason U, Virginia.
Paul Nadler recently completed his Ph.D. in Theatre at the City University of New York; his dissertation is entitled "American Theatre and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1965." A theatre historian and prize-winning playwright, he has taught at New York University and Hunter College.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1995|
|Previous Article:||Towards a poetization of the "Field of Manners".|