African American Drama

The first known African American theatre company was William Henry Brown's troupe which performed at the African Grove in New York in 1821. Among the plays they staged were King Richard 111 and Othello. The Harlem Renaissance produced several interesting playwrights, but it was Lorraine Hansberry who put African American drama on the map with her play A Raisin in the Sun - presented on Broadway in 1959. One of best well-known playwrights in the 1960s was Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) who founded a black theatre company in Newark (Spirit House) whose credo was "By us, about us, for us." The Dutchman is his most famous work. That same decade saw the establishment of the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem (1967), which produced the Black Theatre Magazine - a journal that helped unite and encourage black theatre groups across the USA. Douglas Turner Ward founded the Negro Ensemble Company in New York in 1968, which produced plays relating to African American issues. By the 1980s African American drama had made the transition to mainstream when August Wilson became perhaps the best known African American playwright. His plays Fences (1985) and The Piano Lesson (1990) both won Pulitzers. Rather than use the stage as a platform for anger at blatant racism and discrimination, Wilson explored themes in which African Americans could find their identity with dignity in an unequal society. In 1996, Wilson spoke out against "white" American theatre that kept African Americans subordinate. The speech, made at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference, gave rise to strong debate and resulted in a special New York Town Hall Meeting, chaired by Anna Devere Smith, to discuss the idea of equality in theatre. Wilson advocated a separatist African American theatre while the critic Robert Brustein accused him of deliberately creating a cultural division between black and whites. No compromise was reached. Today the most notable African American playwrights are women: Ntozaki Shange, Alice Childress, Adrienne Kennedy, and Suzan Lori Parks. One of the most influential directors in American theatre is George Wolfe who has also contributed greatly to African American theatre both as a playwright and a director. His most successful play The Colored Museum (1986) explored the theme of African Americans accepting their past and moving on to a fresh future. In 1994, he directed Tony Kushner's Angels in America for Broadway. Another highly successful and popular production was his musical Bring on Da Noise, Bring on Da Funk (1996). Wolfe is also the current producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

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