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African American Women Playwrights and the Empowerment of Black Women

15 Feb 2019 10:14 PM | Jenni Munday (Administrator)

By Sharon Wallace

Pioneering Black Women Playwrights: The Early Plays

(excerpt from dissertation chapter 3)

The politics and creativity represented in the African American struggle in the works of pioneering  African American women playwrights who prolifically wrote plays concerning the Black struggle that informed the Black community on the politics of social issues that influenced their everyday existence. 

Specifically, this chapter explores the early plays that gave African Americans the opportunity to hear their story being told by people who looked like them.  These plays were written by the mother dramatists and were more prominent than their Black male counterpart at the time.  Thus, the early plays of Black female playwrights were influential on the Black community because the news as it pertained to Blacks at that time slanted the truth to one side. 

This injustice of inaccurate information kept Blacks ignorant to the truth of a situation or conflict.  Therefore, the pioneer African American women playwrights illuminated information that was hidden from them. 

Additionally, the mother playwrights wrote about what some Black writers feared to address, such topics as religion and abortion.  They were bold and bright and set the standards for contemporary Black female dramatists to follow.

            As a contemporary playwright, I am inspired by pioneer African American women playwrights such as Angelia Weld Grimké, born in 1880. James V. Hatch and Ted Shine write in Black Theatre USA:  Plays by African Americans—The Early Period 1847-1938  that,“Grimké was the only daughter of Archibald Grimké and Sarah E. Stanley. 

This was an interracial marriage that was unique in that it was a legal marriage. Grimké, a well-known poet, had written a play, her first, Blessed Are the Barren during the time the NAACP published a request for race propaganda plays.  She had hoped that this play would tug at the heart of white mothers. It might eliminate racism. Grimké re-titled the play Rachel.

It was submitted and accepted by the Drama Committee of the NAACP.  Produced originally in Washington, D.C., in 1916 at the Myrtill Miner School . . . the play remains a major classic by a Black playwright, and it is the earliest extant full-length drama written by a Black female” (Hatch and Shine 133).

Grimké’s play, Rachel, was the first play by a Black woman that was presented on stage to inform the American public of the plight of the Black race.  “Rachel was the first attempt by a Black woman to use the stage for race propaganda in order “to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the millions of Colored citizens in this free republic” (Gloria Hull, qtd. in Hatch and Shine 134). 

Grimké’s play Rachel speaks up about the civil injustice and racial abomination Black people encounter living in America.  The staging of Grimké’s play was the first time a play written by a woman of color was used in the theatre to educate the masses on the state of affairs of millions of Black people. The theatre was used to tell the story to a White audience about the struggles of a Black family to succeed in a racist an oppressive society. 

            However, plays about a Black family received limited reviews, and of course the play’s theme may have kept White audiences away from the theatre.  As Eulalie Spence noted, “The white audience didn’t wish to be reminded about their sins, and Black audiences already were very well aware of the lamentable condition of the million of Colored citizens” (Eulalie Spence qtd. in Hatch and Shine 134).

The story that Rachel tells is not a happy tale about a Black family content with the life they’re living. Grimké’s goal is to show the audience the reality of Black life.  However, the theatre is a space of escape for some audiences, a place to be entertained. The harsh realities of Black life were not what the White or Black audiences wanted to see. 

 Whites wanted to avoid the arrows of blame directed at them for causing the suffering of the Loving family, and Blacks knew all too well what Blacks had to wrestle with.  Grimké’s attempt to use the stage to inform her audience was not well received.

Nevertheless according to Hatch and Shine, “With the play’s 1920 publication, however, Rachel reached a larger female audience and became the subject of the ongoing debate among critics of the theatre and other literary forums. 

In particular, the original Drama Committee that produced the work had already divided opinions on the function of drama:  should drama be propaganda or art” (Hatch and Shine 134).  Female audiences were intrigued by Rachel’s decision to live an independent life without marriage or children.  The theatre offered few women figures that took such a strong and feminist role during that period. 

            Grimké’s play was used as propaganda to inform the audience of the suffering of Black citizens. However, both Black and White mainstream audiences did not attend the performance. This raises the question if the theatre should be used for art or propaganda. 

I maintain that the theatre does a combination of both on most occasions.  It showcases art and propaganda, a message is always factored into the story to inform the audience about how to live.  The art of the story makes the teaching that takes place in a play easier to accept. 

The public does not feel that they are being lectured to if they are entertained while being educated.  I acknowledge that Grimké’s play was ahead of its time, and audiences were not ready to face themselves on the stage.  Because they were in the midst of living the experience of the play; the reality of the play was too close to personal emotions and too soon to view in a performance. 

            The lynching of the father in Grimké’s play was a new tenet in theatre that the theatre going public had not been exposed to, so it was shocking to hear it discussed by the mother. Perkins asserts that, “Grimke’s outrage over the lynching of African Americans in the United States is reflected in her early activism as well as in her drama. . . .Rachel is traditionally considered a drama of new beginnings. 

Samuel Hay notes that drama depicting the horrors of lynching began with Grimké, and Claudia Tate identifies Grimké’s work as the location of  ‘a new point in African American literature,’ where depictions of racial protest start satisfying the expectations of twentieth-century Black readers . . . Grimké’s Rachel represents the foundation of a unique American dramatic genre which continues to develop on the contemporary stage” (Perkins 25). 

Certainly, Grimké’s Rachel was a trailblazer for future playwrights writing plays as an act of protest against racial injustice.  Clearly literature in the form of a play is a powerful genre that can raise awareness on an issue and bring about change. Most assuredly, Rachel was the emergence of American literature that cast light on issues important to African Americans.

Judith L. Stephens underscores in “Lynching Dramas and Women:  History and Critical Context” that, “As a body of work, plays written in the anti-lynching tradition represent an important community of consciousness between Black and white Americans and reveal an artistic tradition that both preserves and transcends Black/white racial separation in the unity of dramatic form” (Stephens 4-5).

Remarkably, protest plays have the potential to enlighten the consciousness of Black and White Americans.  By the nature of the genre, plays inform the public about matters of interest to the community. Thus these anti-lynching plays is a creative form that archived division between Blacks and Whites and goes beyond those disconnections and connect through a play. 

Black female women’s leadership in the anti-lynching movement was prominent, and they demonstrated their objection to the lynching of Blacks through their dramas.  Stephens asserts about “. . .dramas written by women because women played a unique role in the anti-lynching movement and in the development of lynching drama. 

Given this particular history, these plays can be seen as a source of womanist/feminist drama.  The compound ‘womanist/feminist’ is used here to represent Black women’s leadership in the anti-lynching movement and to recognize the tradition of Black and white American women working together toward common goals” (5).  Thus, both Black and White female playwrights contributed to the genre of anti-lynching plays, which place attention on the issue of lynching of Black men. 

Kathy Perkins asserts in “The Impact of Lynching on the Art of African American Women” that, “The lack of representation of women as direct victims of lynching is remarkable when one recognizes that women were consistently subjected to the same brutality as men … Of all the known plays by women—both Black and white—none focuses on the lynching of a woman” (Perkins 16).  

It seems that gender equality was not a factor in the anti-lynching plays.  In order words, the lynching of Black women was not documented in dramas, although Black women suffered brutal attacks of violence. Nevertheless, these plays fulfilled a purpose that presents stories of the atrocity Blacks experience with the barbarity of lynching.

            African Americans have used theatre ritual as a venue to share stories of the community through oral storytelling.  Africans have a rich history in that early form of theatre. Therefore, because of that history we should not be surprised by contributions of the pioneer mothers to African American theatre and the plays that are available to us. 

Hatch and Shine note that, “Since ancient times the people of Africa have celebrated life and death in theatre ritual.  Much of this was oral drama, passed on by tradition but never written down” (334).  However, as the culture evolves so does the theatre, and African Americans began to write plays that reflected their experiences. 

In the past and like today’s plays written by Black playwrights,  they can teach the history of the Black community in our own words.  Moreover, Hatch and Shine stress that, “African American students could not learn about themselves from history texts, concerned artists such as May Miller. . . decided that plays could be an entertaining and effective tool of enlightenment” (326). 

The African American story has been diluted and absent from history books from south to north.  Arguably, African American students learned about their history and culture through early plays written by Miller and her contemporaries   She was conscience of the importance and value of education and saw education as a means to progress and prosperity for Blacks.  May Miller wrote mostly one-act plays to provide her students with images they could identify with and reflected themselves and not the stereotypes commonly presented. (Hatch and Shine 334).

            The failure of history texts to inform African American students about themselves led playwrights, such as May Miller to write plays about Black culture.  They believed that plays could educate and entertain all the while bringing awareness to students.  Hence, audiences attending theatre production of plays written by Black playwrights could identify with the story and the characters on stage and shared similar experiences. 

            Theatre in the Black community served as a place where Blacks came together to examine through the lens of entertainment issues that affect Black life, teaching them how to problem solve elements of conflict with creative solutions presented through the play.  

Thus, May Miller recognized the strength in using plays to confront issues within the African American community.  Samuel A. Hays underscores in African American Theatre: An Historical and Critical Analysis that, “May Miller’s Graven Images (1929), one of the best plays of the period, was just what Bible-toting southerners needed: 

God punishes Moses’ sister Miriam for defaming the Ethiopian Eliezer” (Hay 84) Moses’ sister Miriam slanders his son Eliezer and exposes racism thoughts and words to the child. These actions were shown in Biblical times as she tells her nephews’ friends that Eliezer is not the image of God because he is Black like his mother”  (38). 

Hay stresses that, “The Du Bois Era was significant, then, because it compelled African American dramatists to address the political and socioeconomic issues of race” (84).  Thus, Du Bois commissioned plays for his Crisis magazine, creating a platform for Black playwrights to be produced and that made a way for the African American to publicly have a discussion on racism in the political and socioeconomic arena.

Moreover, those political plays would be used to encourage African Americans’ activism as active participants in the community.  The theatre was that place where Blacks could speak freely on issues that impacted their future.  For that reason, Du Bois saw plays as tool to teach African Americans on the issues of race and how it affects every aspect of their existence.

Black dramatists, most importantly, wrote plays about Black culture in a vernacular African Americans understood.  Miller’s Graven Images shows the audience that Black people have always been a part of the developing world we live in and that we did not only happen or appear on the scene by accident. 

In her play, Miller uses a Bible verse as an example of racism occurring B.C.  Hatch and Shine point out that, “Graven Images is inspired by an Old Testament verse:  ‘And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman he had married.’ (Numbers 12:I). 

It was written around 1929 for eighth grade children and shows how the Black man is woven into the fabric of the universe.  ‘We belong,’ this play exclaims, ‘we have always been, and we will always be’” (334).  Miller’s play illustrates to Black audiences that African Americans have purpose in the world.  That we are contributors to humanity and that contribution is equally as important to the building of the nation. 

Therefore, African American dramatists gave voice to the political and social concerns of Black audiences.  Because of that, early African American women playwrights saw the opportunity to use plays as a weapon Blacks could use to enrich their knowledge on how to take action against the injustices that shrouded African Americans in perpetual struggle.

Furthermore, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, like Grimké and Miller, was a dramatist and wrote plays that reflected the life and times of African American culture. Theatre was an outlet for the Black community, a space where they could see themselves as human beings. 


Sharon Wallace is on the Board of Trustees for ICWP

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