african american theatre





African American Theatre


The African American theatre dates back to many hundreds of years ago. It might not have been on stage, but they had a way of entertaining themselves. There were the jitterbug contests, the step by step dance contests, just to mention but a few. As the years advanced, there was the introduction of lodges, streets, nightclubs and churches where entertainment took its full blast (Hill & James xv). The previously dominated white stage has witnessed the emergence of very many black actors and acting in plays written by both black and white scriptwriters over the years. This has not come easily and the growth of this particular industry has not reached its climax. As more and more people get into the theatre and the whole film industry at large, the more we are to expect in this world of entertainment.


For many years, the black person could not go to the theatre and watch a play or any other production. This is because there was nothing “black” in them. There was nothing in the theatres that the African American people could associate with. As Lloyd G. Richards puts it, in the book A History of African American Theatre, the foreword part, the theatre was not a topic to be discussed over the dinner table when he was growing up. This is because there was nothing to be discussed about since there was nothing they could associate with (Hill & James xii). From having their self-made entertainment without necessarily having a stage, the African Americans have slowly penetrated the theatre and dominated it over the years. The Americans have witnessed many plays written by both races, win awards in America. There are the likes of August Wilson who made recognizable impact in the white dominated theatre. In this paper, I will discuss many other people who have contributed to the growth of the theatre for the African American people and other challenges, merits and the expectations they had.

The Themes of the Early Plays

During the slavery times, there is a story that used to go around about the men who could fly. This was about how men from Africa were brought into slavery in America and made beasts of burden. They were taken into the farms and made to do hard work like digging, collecting beans and other works. This made them so tired until they longed to go back to their land. They sent a word to a man who was believed to have wings for them to fly. This man sent a secret word and those who recognized it, got their wings and flew away. However, those who did not recognize it were left behind to find their way out by running away thus the original song I Will Fly Away.

Plays were made out of these stories, which were retrieved from stories told by the slaves then passed on from generation to generation. These stories have been of particular interests to playwrights since the 1850s. They tell of where the African American came from and his encounters as he tried to get his freedom. They tell of the dehumanizing treatment the people went through. They tell that the African Americans had a home, a culture, a religion and a lifestyle before they were brought to America (Peterson 7).

The give the audience an opportunity to compare the life that those slaves faced and the life that one is living now. The plays offer the audience something to reflect about.

The People’s Contribution

As mentioned earlier, many people have contributed to the growth of the African American Theatre. Due to the space and time limitation, I can only mention a few of them. James De Jongh, once wrote a play based on the sufferings of the slaves in America during the slavery time. This play named Do Lord Remember Me was showed at the American Place Theatre in 1983 and only consisted of five characters (Dickerson & Glenda 14). The play is full of songs, dance and dialogue as the character tell their story. The play discloses the person who is in slavery. It sheds light on the person who is hidden by the veil of servility and stupidity that is the person without wings. The cast in this play included Glynn Truman, Roscoe Orman, Barbara Montgomery, Chuck Patterson and Jo-Ann.

August Wilson, who was born as Fredrick August Kittel, cannot be forgotten when talking about the history of African American theatre. Having dropped from high school and then taking on a couple of odd jobs here and there, he finally established the Black horizon theatre in 1968. This was in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1982, play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is showcased at the National Playwrights Conference where he meets Lloyd Richards, a man who directs many of his plays (Melba 40).

In 1992, another of his plays, Fences hits Broadway and gets the Pulitzer Prize. This sets a non musical box office record worth $11million. In 1988 another play in his name Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, hits the Broadway though it does not win him any prize. In 1990, another of his plays the Piano Lesson manages to win Wilson another Pulitzer Prize. In 1992, 1996 and 1999, the plays Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars and King Hedley II are shown respectively. He is also known to protest against racism in the theatre. For example, in 1997, he got in to a debate with Robert Brustein, who was the director of American Repertory Theatre, on race and theatre casting. All these plays have greatly focused on the African American person and the people can really associate themselves in (Melba 45).

Another Playwright, Suzan Lori Parks, has written many plays, of which some have won awards, about the African American person. She was inspired to write some plays from the 1850 life of the African American person. Some of the plays she has written are: The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, Topdog/ Undergog which won her the Pulitzer Prize, The American Play, Venus, In the Blood, Fucking A, which are both based on the novel The Scarlet Letter, just to mention but a few (Hill & Douglas 80).


It was not easy getting into the stage and pulling out an act in front of some audience. This is because of the discrimination the African Americans went through in the past. As mentioned earlier, Wilson tried his best to make sure that there was no discrimination in the casting at the theatre. The whites who had already dominated the theatre did not want to make some room for the African American actors and so they had to fight and earn their way into the theatre.

It was very hard to get the right materials/information to write these plays. Most of the stories told were done so orally. Getting the right materials to know what really happened was quite a challenge. As known, the slaves were not allowed to know how to read or write. This made the incapable of putting their thoughts down so that it could be made as a reference. The playwrights had to work harder to get this information, turn it into a play easily understood by the ordinary man and make it interesting enough for one to sit down and watch it.

Many talented people could act. However, getting the right people to execute a certain scene in the right way was another challenge. In fact, it was a challenge for some actors to pull out the exact impression of what a particular slave went through. In other times, they were caught in their own emotions of what happened during those early times. For example, Dickerson and Glenda tell us of an instance where actor Lou Gossett, starts convulsing in a shooting of a scene, after witnessing the thrashing of a new slave boy for refusing to be called by his new name ‘Toby’ instead of Kunta. He starts comforting the boy by telling him that it did not matter what they called him. All what matters is that he knew himself and where he was coming from. After the shooting, he admitted that he felt as if he was here those many years ago, a slave, with that boy (Dickerson & Glenda 15).


The theatre has grown in many ways and it has not yet reached its climax. However, it faces many challenges for the film industry has taken most of entertainment lovers. People do not visit theatres to watch plays but to watch movies. As I write this, there are many more African American actors who have flooded the entertainment industry and who take this industry into another completely new level. The African Americans are ready to tell their own stories and freely express themselves in their own way.

Many people have come forth to write books about the African American history so that it has become a lot easier to find information. The playwrights have also tried their level best to focus their attention on other issues affecting the people at large thus making the play a good watch for people of all races.


As well put before, the theatre has not yet revealed its full potential. More and more playwrights and actors are emerging in order to make the theatre as interesting as it can be. They want to make it hard for the people to choose between watching movie and watching a nice play in the theatre. There should be more to watch about the African American person, where he has come from, where he is and where he is going.


Works Cited

Dickerson, Glenda & Glenda Dicker/sun. African American theater: a cultural companion. Cambridge: Policy Press, 2008. Print.

This book addresses Black theater from the core of its inception in early American history all through the ages. It provides the reader with the tools of conceptualizing new monologues and plays that are influenced by the African American culture. A review of current theater is also provided to show the development of the arts as the Black community knows it.

Hill, Anthony & Douglas Barnett. Historical Dictionary of African American Theatre. Maryland: Rowman & Little Publishing Group, 2008. Print.

This resource provides an account of the effects of tradition, culture, folklores, rituals and practices that have shaped African American theatre. It provides various forms of literature including essays, songs, and plays to demonstrate the different levels of culture that theater enhances. A historical account of prominent directors, actors and playwrights that have promoted African American culture through art are also provided.

Hill, Errol & James Vernon Hatch. History of African American theatre. New York, NY: CambidgeUniversity Press, 2003. Print.

This resource outlines various styles that were incorporated into Black theatre by other cultures to bring about an enhanced level of performance in the arts. It is notable that the performances under review were mainly directed by white playwrights and directors who undertook the use of black actors and musicians. This brought about a more diverse level of culture in all the works of art that are under review.

Melba, Duncan. A Complete Idiots Guide to African American History. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

This is a simplified guide into the origins of African American history and its influences in theater and the arts. The author presents a diverse knowledge of Black history that was expressed in films as well as the depictions of culture in the process. At the same time, a discussion of famous playwrights, actors and activists are presented from an African American perspective.

Peterson, Bernard. The African American theatre directory, 1816-1960: A comprehensive guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press 1997. Print.

This resource utilizes a directorial approach to various movements in the arts including playwrights, writers, directors and actors over various periods. It provides diverse forms of literature including essays, songs, and plays to demonstrate the different levels of culture that theater enhances. A historical account of prominent directors, actors and playwrights that have promoted African American culture through art are also provided.

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