Cover image for The first Black actors on the great white way
The first Black actors on the great white way
Curtis, Susan, 1956-
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Columbia : University of Missouri Press, [1998]

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xix, 277 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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PN2270.A35 C87 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Three Plays for the Negro Theater by Ridgely Torrence was the first production on Broadway to feature an all black cast. Despite early critical acclaim the show closed within a month and received little attention thereafter. Curtis explores both the progress of race relations that led to this production and the reasons for its quick demise.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

This lively, well-written book begins with a remarkable moment: the April 5, 1917, opening of Ridgely Torrence's Three Plays for a Negro Theater. The production was the first serious play starring African Americans to open on Broadway and was at first enthusiastically received, with glowing notices by some of the most prominent New York critics. But it closed a few months later and disappeared from American theater history. Purdue American studies professor Curtis examines the myriad factors that went into both the play's initial success--specifically, the social and theatrical connections of the all-white production team--and its eventual failure to open Broadway to African Americans. She also compellingly depicts just how racist and white supremacist the U.S. was in the early twentieth century and just how hard it was for African American actors to get credit for their talents (if they were good, they were condescendingly called "natural"). What's more, the book affords a fascinating glimpse of Broadway in its commercial heyday, ruled by such philistines as David Belasco and Lee Shubert. --Jack Helbig

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1917, a landmark event shattered the conventions of American theater‘the first Broadway production in which African Americans portrayed black characters in a serious drama, as opposed to minstrel shows or superficial comedies. Ridgely Torrence's Three Plays for a Negro Theater, which opened at Madison Square Complex's Garden Theatre, consisted of three experimental playlets‘The Rider of Dreams, Granny Maumee and Simon, the Cyrenian. Among the all-black cast were well-known thespians like Inez Clough and Opal Cooper; audience members on opening night included W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, plus influential critics like Heywood Broun and Alexander Woollcott. The drama drew critical raves, and its sympathetic portrayal of blacks as complex individuals struck a chord especially with black theatergoers. So why did Three Plays close after a brief run and lapse into obscurity? Most chroniclers blame the U.S. entry into WW I, one day after the play opened, but Curtis, a Purdue professor of history and American studies, places the blame with mainstream white audiences, who weren't ready or willing to seriously consider the play's implicit critique of racial inequality. The production's three white principals‘Torrence, producer Emilie Hapgood and Harvard-trained director Robert Jones‘saw themselves as members of a progressive avant-garde struggling to create a democratic, participatory theater, but Curtis finds their ideas tinged with racist condescension and deep ambivalence about advancing a black agenda for social justice. This meticulous, scholarly work concludes with a look at Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920), one of the first plays to bring the distinguished achievements of black actors to the attention of mainstream audiences. Photos. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Curtis (history/American studies, Purdue Univ.) has made a major contribution to our understanding of theater history. While researching a book on Scott Joplin (Dancing to a Black Man's Tune, LJ 4/15/94), Curtis became intrigued by a trio of long-forgotten plays by Ridgely Torrence. In 1917, these were presented at the Garden Theater in New York under the title Three Plays for a Negro Theater. The review in the New York Times was so different from that in the New York Age that Curtis was intrigued‘how could even the plots be described so differently? And why were these early "serious" plays about American Negro life so quickly forgotten? The resulting text is an excellent example of how history, theater, and cultural studies can be brought together to offer a fascinating story of people whose contribution is now being given the credit it deserves. The chapter notes and bibliography are excellent. Recommended for all libraries, especially those with strong collections in theater or African American studies. (Photos not seen.)‘Susan L. Peters, Emory Univ. Lib., Atlanta (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This is an important study, not only of blacks in US drama, but of the complex cross-cultural collaborations and racial politics behind one of the most important theater events of the early 20th century: the April 5, 1917, Broadway opening of three one-act plays by the American playwright Ridgely Torrence, with an all-black cast. This history-making event and the black performers who helped to bring it about quickly faded from the annals of US theater history, receiving only cursory commentary in subsequent years, if they were mentioned at all. In an attempt to explain this forgetfulness, especially on the part of the New York critics who initially endorsed the plays (which ran for about a month), Curtis delved deeply into previously unpublished archival materials, uncovered many newspaper and magazine articles and reviews about the plays, and tried to present as much biographical information as possible about the cast members, most of whom either joined stock companies or stopped performing altogether. The result is a scholarly but accessible cultural history that will appeal to anyone interested in the intersections between race, culture, and the performing arts on the eve of WW I. Highly recommended. S. Adell University of Wisconsin--Madison



Chapter One OPENING NIGHT AND THE MORNING AFTER "This was a `first night' ... and the few ifs and a good many buts to the contrary notwithstanding, it was a great night, a history making night at the play." Merlin J. Clusium, April 5, 1917 In many respects the opening of Three Plays for a Negro Theater at the Garden Theatre on April 5, 1917, was like any other. Avid first-nighters arrived at the Madison Square Complex in New York City, their appetites whetted for the latest Broadway show. Celebrities like William Faversham and Billie Burke, veterans of the stage, came to see fellow thespians perform and to be seen. Wealthy patrons of the arts, among them Otto Kahn, Mrs. George Gould, and Miss Constance Collier, decked out in their finest theater garb, made their way into the capacious Garden, lending an air of elegance and glamour to the usual excitement of a first-night production. And, of course, sprinkled throughout the audience were the influential critics of New York City's many daily newspapers and magazines, their pencils and critical eyes sharp and ready to judge the histrionic display. The flamboyant Alexander Woollcott of the New York Times undoubtedly swept into the theater Wearing his trademark top hat and cape, already mentally composing a stylish Phrase to open his review. Likely already milling about in the lobby would have Been Louis De Foe of the World , George Jean Nathan of Smart Set , Heywood Broun of the New York Tribune , the sarcastic James Metcalfe, who wrote reviews for Life , and the affable Charles Darnton, who puffed plays for the Evening World . An opening night on Broadway promised glitter and light, eager anticipation and affected ennui, a new show and an old crowd.     Perhaps the assembling audience displayed a bit more anticipation and a bit less ennui because of the people involved in the production. One reason critics, socialites, and celebrities flocked to the Garden was to witness the directorial debut of Robert Edmond Jones, who in recent months had sent shock waves along Broadway with his radical new set and costume designs. How would he set the stage for Three Plays for a Negro Theater , they may well have wondered. Would his skills as a director match or even complement his fame as a stage artist? Emilie Hapgood, the producer, and Ridgely Torrence, the playwright, no doubt attracted a large number of friends, fans, and well-wishers, too. Hapgood, the wealthy and beautiful ex-wife of Norman Hapgood, was well connected in the city's theater circles. A patroness of the arts and the influential former president of the New York Stage Society, she rapidly was gaining a reputation for producing daring, innovative shows, like her most recent staging of G. K. Chesterton's Magic at the Maxine Elliott Theatre. Ridgely Torrence, the author of the three plays, had become an intimate of many of the younger poets, dramatists, and writers who populated the literary and artistic scene in the city and who would have trekked to the Garden Theatre to show support for one of their darlings. Curiosity about a new show and the celebrated people connected with it, as well as friendly professional interest, no doubt intensified the atmosphere surrounding this first night.     But the elements that distinguished this opening night from others were the subject of the plays--African American life--and the players--an all-black cast. If the title of the production did not alert the public to the novel performance they were about to witness, the number of prominent African Americans in the crowd, like W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Lester A. Walton, and advance notices in the newspapers undoubtedly had. As the Evening Post had reported two days before the big event, "A dramatic incident of more than common interest will occur in the Garden Theatre on Thursday night," when "for the first time in this city, a series of plays will be performed by a company of colored performers." The crowd that gathered in the Garden Theatre came to witness a landmark event in the history of the American Stage: the first black actors were performing on the Great White Way.     Regardless of the quality of the plays, the abilities of the actors, and the critical reception of the production, this opening night was history in the making. The all-African American cast was the first to appear on a Broadway stage in dramas that portrayed African American life seriously and sympathetically. To be sure, these performers were not the first to entertain a Broadway audience. Indeed, observant first-nighters might have recognized Alexander Rogers, Jesse Shipp, and Lottie Grady as veterans of the popular black musical comedy companies of the early 1900s that performed shows written by Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson or Bert Williams and George Walker. But unlike those earlier productions, which featured singing, dancing, outrageous comedy, and familiar black stereotypes, the one-act plays that made up Three Plays for a Negro Theater featured a variety of African American types and proposed that the drama of black-white relations and of this folk culture constituted an important foundation for a distinctive American Theater. The plays and the players laid claim to central roles in the creation of a modern American dramatic tradition.     If anticipation and curiosity rippled through the orchestra section, private boxes, and galleries of the Garden Theatre, uncertainty mixed with fear reigned backstage. Torrence recalled years later that as opening night approached, the cast developed a severe case of collective stage fright. As he reported to a would-be biographer in 1936, "They believed that Negroes trying to be serious before an audience of white people who had never known them on the stage except as clowns, would be jeered and hooted off the boards. Few of the cast would allow members of their families to attend the performance for fear of the shame of the certain boos, bad eggs and catcalls." But many of the actors were experienced performers, and they knew theater tradition: the show must go on. The members of the company summoned their courage, donned their costumes and makeup, and took their places before the footlights. Three Plays for a Negro Theater --------------------------------------------------------------------------- When the curtain rose for the first play, a comedy called The Rider of Dreams , on stage were Blanche Deas as Lucy Sparrow and Joseph Burt as her son, Booker. From the opening scene, the play must have startled the audience, for neither character sang or danced, and the stage was set to suggest a humble dwelling of black working people. Little Joseph Burt won the audience over with his impish portrayal of the lovable but pert Booker as well as by his mere presence on stage--black musical comedies from the previous decade typically did not include child characters. The good-natured banter between mother and son amid Lucy Sparrow's preparation of the evening meal set the tone for an inside view of black family life.     When Opal Cooper entered the scene as Lucy's husband, Madison, carrying a guitar that he obviously could not have afforded to buy, it became clear very quickly that the play would examine competing American dreams within black families. The drama revolves around their savings account, to which Lucy has been faithfully contributing for twelve years. Unbeknownst to his wife, Madison has just withdrawn all the money from the bank. A white confidence man, Wilson Byrd, has forged Lucy's signature to complete the transaction and then stolen a guitar as a token of the wealth he and Madison will make. Lucy's dream is to own their home; Madison's dream is to invest the money in a get-rich-quick scheme so they can live in luxury without having to endure the drudgery of work. The Sparrows offered the audience a study in contrasts: Lucy's steady, pious, long-suffering embrace of deferred gratification versus Madison's poetic desire for independence and wealth and his rich, cajoling laughter that bespoke his zest for immediate satisfaction. As he explains to his wife that he must go out early the next morning to do some business, but hiding from her the nature of that business, Madison discovers to his horror that the money he has withdrawn from the bank is gone.     What follows are a frantic confession, shattering dreams, and the shared recognition that they have no money to pay the rent due that day, let alone buy the house or launch an enterprise. In the middle of their panic, the landlord, Dr. Williams, played by Alexander Rogers, arrives to collect the rent. He alone knows what has happened to the thick stack of bills, because he found it lying on the ground after Sparrow and his partner in crime hastily parted company to avoid being seen together. He caught the white forger and thief and wrested a written confession from him. With this knowledge the good doctor decides to extract from Madison the promise to mend his irresponsible ways. In the end, Williams accepts the money as payment for the Sparrows' home and hires Madison to teach his children how to play the guitar. Beholden and shamed, Madison Sparrow resigns himself to the disappointment of steady labor, but he wails one final lament about his longing to make his own music, which in this play, unlike in lighthearted comedies, must remain unfulfilled.     As the curtain descended, the audience thundered its approval. The Sparrows had come alive, thanks to the talents of Deas, Burt, and Cooper. Their efforts along with Alexander Rogers's offered the audience four distinct types of African American characters, whose pathos and obvious affection for one another struck a human chord that transcended race. After several curtain calls, the actors left the stage, Deas scurrying off to change costumes for her part in the next play. As the stage hands, led by a black carpenter named John Ahearn, arranged the set for Granny Maumee , the Clef Club Orchestra, under the direction of J. Rosamond Johnson, assembled in front of the curtain and dazzled the waiting audience with instrumental and vocal arrangements of popular black music.     The second play was much darker than the first. Marie Jackson-Stuart starred in the title role as an old, blind woman preparing her simple country cabin for the arrival of her great-granddaughter Sapphie (Deas) and her great-great-grandson, the only male heir of her "royal black" line. The opening dialogue between Granny and her other great-granddaughter, Pearl, played by Fannie Tarkington, reveals the tragedy that has set this drama in motion. Years earlier, Granny had lost her eyesight trying to rescue her son from a white lynch mob who burned him alive for a crime he did not commit. Her son died, and in the two generations that followed, there were no boys to replace him. Granny has a burning desire to see one male heir before she dies and a hatred of the white murderers that makes her cling ever more tenaciously to her pure African descent. Granny disapproves of Sapphie's decision to leave the farm to work for a white family in the city, but she eagerly awaits the chance to hold the girl's baby in her arms and to know that her family's racial purity will continue for another generation.     Sapphie's arrival with her child--a mulatto--sets up the bizarre events of the second half of the play. Barely greeting her great-granddaughter, Granny snatches the baby from his basket and clutches him to her breast. The ecstasy she experiences miraculously restores her eyesight. Horror-struck and betrayed at the sight of the pale infant, Granny flies into a rage, madly plotting the demise of the white father, who is expected later in the evening. To compound the old woman's fury, the father turns out to be a descendant of one of the men who killed her son. Granny begins frantically to assemble the relics from that long-ago fatal day--two charred posts and a link of chain that had bound her son to his fate--as well as bunches of herbs that when burned create poisonous smoke. She uses the smoke first to incapacitate Sapphie and Pearl; she hopes it eventually will help her destroy the white man who has "tainted" her black family's blood. Now sighted, but blind in her anger, Granny resorts to voodoo to avenge the death of her son and the violation of her royal black line.     Hovering somewhere between an evil spirit world she is trying to conjure up and this world of pain and tragedy, Granny is addressing her dead son when the white man knocks at the door. Struggling mightily with her desire to wreak vengeance, she believes she hears her dead son pleading with her to forgive the white man so mother and son can be reunited in heaven. Suddenly, a power stronger than her hatred overwhelms her. Granny shrieks her forgiveness to the unseen man at the door and collapses in a heap. The two girls see that Granny Maumee is dead and flee from the room, leaving the crumpled figure in the center of the stage. As the full force of the play hit the audience, the curtain slowly descended.     As before, the first-night crowd clapped excitedly, more than once calling Deas, Tarkington, and Jackson-Stuart to the curtain to accept their hearty approval. The Clef Club again provided entr'acte entertainment while the stage was changed for the next play. In this set, the orchestra played their instruments, sang, and featured a novelty number with a trombonist dancing while he played the blues. When the curtain rose for the third time, the audience observed the kind of staging and costuming for which Robert Edmond Jones had become famous. A few simple props and striking, boldly colored costumes evoked ancient Jerusalem on the night Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, scourged, and eventually crucified. In minutes, the previous set had been transformed and the audience transported to the world of Simon, the Cyrenian , far removed from the backwoods cabin of Granny Maumee.     As the title suggests, the third play of the trilogy was built on a brief passage in three of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus that tells how the soldiers enlisted Simon, a man of Cyrene, to carry the cross to the place of execution when its weight became too much for Jesus to bear. In Torrence's play, Simon, played by John T. Butler, was no mere bystander, plucked at random from the crowd by Roman soldiers. Rather he was a bold African rebel whose leadership of the downtrodden posed a potentially serious military threat to the Roman Empire. As the play begins, Inez Clough, as Procula, the wife of Pilate, recreates another moment in the crucifixion drama reported in Matthew. Procula warns her husband to have nothing to do with the Nazarene, because, according to the gospel account, Jesus had given her frightful dreams. In Simon, the Cyrenian, Torrence imagines that she sends for the African rebel to urge him to incite a disturbance if Jesus is sentenced to die. The rest of the play shows Simon's struggle to remain true to his cause and his people even as he recognizes the revolutionary message of the condemned carpenter's son. Simon, it turns out, happened to be in the garden of Gethsemane when the soldiers arrested Jesus; their eyes met, and Simon reports to Acte, an Egyptian princess, "I have seen the whole world's sorrow in one man's eyes." Simon is determined to save both his own people and this champion of the oppressed.     Acte, played by Lottie Grady, and Barrabas, played by Jesse Shipp, both fear Jesus and urge Simon to leave. Simon, however, unable to abandon this strangely powerful man, remains in Jerusalem and eventually falls into the hands of the Roman soldiers. No actor portraying Jesus appears on stage, but a voice backstage recites familiar sayings attributed to Him at crucial moments when Simon prepares to use violence to make his escape and to free the Judean. At last, mocked and scorned himself, the mighty Simon bears the cross of Jesus, humbly dons a crown of thorns, and closes the drama with the words, "I will wear this, I will bear this till he comes into his own."     The audience in the Garden Theatre on Maundy Thursday, 1917, no doubt was particularly susceptible to the emotional force of the last play. Simon's violence was transmuted into Christ-like humility, and love, not revolutionary armies, promising to transform the world--pertinent ideals to Americans as they contemplated with dread the coming of war. Still applauding the performances in Simon, the Cyrenian, the audience remained seated for one final appearance by the Clef Club Orchestra. But when the last echo of the music faded away, the audience finally departed. The critics had to compose the reviews that would appear the next day in dailies throughout the city. Friends and supporters searched backstage for Torrence, Hapgood, and Jones to heap on them their praise and delight. Celebrities and theater regulars completed the first-night ritual with gay parties or late suppers at the fashionable gathering places along the Great White Way. The actors, still unsure of their reception in spite of the enthusiastic applause, shed their costumes and face paint and headed home to await the reviews that would determine their future.     One man in the crowd, Merlin J. Clusium, anticipating the flood of praise that would cover theater pages the following day, could not retire for the night until he had dashed off congratulatory letters to two of the actresses and to Torrence. After making his way from Madison Square Garden to his apartment on West 131st Street, Clusium wrote, "It is 12 o' the night but without writing you, Marie Jackson [ sic ] and Inez Clough, this uncrowned King of the Lion Tribe of Judah could not go to rest. This was a `first night' (for 18 years I was a New York First-nighter) and the few ifs and a good many buts to the contrary notwithstanding, it was a great night, a history making night at the play." This African American first-nighter saw in Torrence, "the first son of Japheth ... who has been able to write of his brother's greatest sin in North America, without stigmatizing Negro womanhood." The night for Clusium had been marked by a "[g]ood crowd--good plays well played and everything pleasingly fine to the minutest detail" and he reveled in having witnessed "a new form of literature." By the time Torrence received this hastily written note, it was but one voice in a loud chorus of praise for his Three Plays for a Negro Theater . The Morning After --------------------------------------------------------------------------- The next morning, as newspapers began to appear on newsstands throughout the city, the audience, actors, playwright, producer, and director, as well as those who had not attended the opening of Three Plays for a Negro Theater , all learned what the critics thought about the plays. J. R. Crowe for the New York Sun declared the opening at the Garden Theatre, "epochal for negro plays and players, as it represented their emancipation from the inertia and prejudice which has heretofore kept them from a general hearing and gave them their first unspecialized and catholic audience." Broun, writing for the New, York Tribune, called the performances "a triumph for the actors, for Mrs. Hapgood, the producer, and for Robert E. Jones, director and designer of sets and costumes." The World 's De Foe described the production as "extremely novel in design and quite the most interesting of the numerous experiments in the theatre ... this season." Of the early responses, only Woollcott's in the New York Times cast aspersions on the production. Conceding "the sympathetic quality" of Torrence's "unusual and deeply interesting texts," the "gracious spirit" of Mrs. Hapgood, and "the unerring eye of the director," Woollcott nevertheless blasted the cast for "a disturbingly and needlessly inadequate performance."     When critics for the evening papers weighed in, it was clear that few had been persuaded by Woollcott's cranky review. The New York Evening Post reported that the plays offered "singular, novel, and possibly significant entertainment," and that the "performance was remarkable in many ways." Stephen Rathbun in the New York Evening Sun called The Rider of Dreams "a little gem of a comedy," and Burns Mantle entitled his review in the New York Evening Mail "Negro Actors Present Unique Programme of Negro Plays at Garden Theatre," which conveyed his generally positive appraisal of the production. The decision was nearly unanimous-- Three Plays for a Negro Theater was a hit on Broadway.     In the days that followed, the commentary generated by Torrence's plays snowballed into an enthusiastic consensus. Cards and letters from delighted audience members poured into the theater. Advertisements placed in the city's daily and weekly newspapers contained the most enthusiastic and flattering comments from New York's most influential critics, which added to the general perception that something quite remarkable had happened on April 5, 1917, at the Garden. Before long, articles in journals like Theatre Magazine , the New Republic , and Theatre Arts Magazine added to the critical acclaim. When he drew up his list of the ten best actors and ten best actresses for the season, George Jean Nathan included Opal Cooper and Inez Clough from the cast of the three plays at the Garden.     African American response to the plays was overwhelmingly positive. The first response from a black publication was a front-page story in the weekly New York Age written by its drama editor, Lester A. Walton. As a member of the first-night crowd, Walton described the production as "a notable occasion, exciting more curiosity and commanding more general attention than any of this season's large crop of dramatic presentations" From his perspective, "the launching of this bold dramatic endeavor was an unqualified success." Other African Americans echoed Walton's sentiments. James Weldon Johnson felt the plays marked "an epoch for the Negro on the stage"; W. E. B. Du Bois also believed the show was "epoch making"; and the Southern Workman saw the production as "a remarkable dramatic experiment."     According to Ridgely Torrence, after the actors read the first wave of reviews, they gained courage and confidence, their performances, which had been good from the start, steadily improved, and the audiences grew a bit each night. After a successful short run at the Garden, Mrs. Hapgood arranged with Lee Shubert to have the plays moved to the house he managed, the Garrick Theatre, and there they remained until late April, when the show closed permanently. The sponsors openly admitted that the plays did not yield a cent, but even their financial losses did not dampen their hearty support for the plays or the players.     The same cannot be said for the fickle critical community. As the days melted into weeks after opening night, the critics seemed to have forgotten their initial fervent applause. Arthur Hornblow, author of the regular column "Mr. Hornblow Goes to the Play" in Theatre Magazine , suffered from the most dramatic case of critical amnesia. In the May issue, he had called the plays "the first noteworthy achievement of the kind on an elevated plane and worth considering." The next month, the influential theater periodical had followed up Mr. Hornblow's review with a lengthy story on the production and had included photographs of Opal Cooper and Ridgely Torrence. The piece ended: "The presentation commends itself to respectful attention because of the sincerity of the purpose and the dramatic and literary value of the plays." By July, however, Mr. Hornblow seemed to have no memory of the "noteworthy achievement" he had hailed just weeks before. He sarcastically summed up the past season: "I think I may safely say that the season just passed, like all former theatrical seasons, is one of the most significant we have known. As to what it is significant of, I am less positive. Possibly that theatrical managers, authors and actors like the idea of riding in limousines, dining now and then on terrapin stew and seeing their names in the papers. If the season signifies anything more significant, just at this minute I can't think what it is." When he published A History of the Theatre in America: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time in 1919, Hornblow not only had completely forgotten Three Plays for a Negro Theater , he also had excluded all other contributions made by African Americans to the American Stage.     Hornblow, however, was not alone. James Metcalfe's review in Life in mid-April concluded that "judging by some bits in the performance of the colored players at the Garden Theatre, there seems to be no reason why in the not remote future our fellow citizens of negro blood should be ineligible to dramatic honors." Two weeks later, Life 's "Confidential Guide" called the plays "novel and interesting." But at the end of May, Metcalfe summed up the 1917 season by complaining that he had seen "no new accomplishments of great originality in any direction," and that "our native authors ... have given us little of novelty or value." A disappointed Louis De Foe confirmed the fact that the critics' "conclusions were practically unanimous that [the season] did not afford even one work of distinguished dramatic or literary quality which understandingly dealt with the problems of contemporary life," He reported that the committee chosen to award a Pulitzer Prize for the best American drama had found none worthy. Augustus Thomas, Richard Burton, and Hamlin Garland, the committee members, decided that none of the seventy American plays that had appeared on Broadway deserved recognition as "the original American play performed in New York which shall best represent the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standard of good morals, good taste and good manners." So, quickly forgotten, Three Plays for a Negro Theater drifted from collective memory as dramatically as it had fired the imagination of the audience on opening night.     Historians of the nation's stage have done little in the intervening eight decades to jog the American memory of this notable, pathbreaking production. Contemporary chroniclers and academic drama critics of the 1910s and 1920s--notably, Arthur Hornblow, Margaret G. Mayorga, Mary Caroline Crawford, and Brander Matthews--relying on end-of-the-season summaries, their own first-night notes and commentaries, and periodic retrospectives on the theater, reconstructed a history of dramatic performance that looked forward, wistfully, to a time when the nation would produce the native-born equivalents of Denmark's Henrik Ibsen and Ireland's John Millington Synge. As a reviewer wrote of Crawford's Romance of the American Theatre , "The work of our `social-minded young playwrights' ..., the author believes, will presently bring about a state of affairs wherein `there will be done for America what the Irish players' (and, presumably, dramatists) `are now doing for Ireland.'" They generally concurred that the 1890s had yielded works on the American West, some of which succeeded in capturing and representing on stage that elusive "American character" that must be the foundation for a national theatrical tradition. They typically identified stock figures in our national drama--the Yankee backwoodsman, the Western wit, the wily Irishman, the city slicker, and the stage Negro--but they were less precise in naming the thematic elements fundamental to a distinctive American school of drama and almost completely blind to the contributions made by African American performers. Thus, these early-twentieth-century histories of the American Stage, touted as comprehensive, made the mainstream white achievements in play writing and acting the whole story.     In later decades, two developments provided for both the continued forgetting of the first black actors on the Great White Way and the promise for recovering our collective memory. Interest in establishing a canon for dramatic literature prompted scholars to return to the standard histories of the stage to see what, if any, works had displayed sufficient staying power to warrant inclusion in the distinguished plays of the American theater. Their efforts necessarily drew them to histories whose claims for comprehensiveness belied the limitations of their investigations. Based on histories of the stage that appeared between the 1920s and 1940s, these studies marked the arrival of African American themes and actors on Broadway and elsewhere with the staging of Eugene O'Neill's plays in the 1920s and thus perpetuated the ignoring of Three Plays for a Negro Theater .     At the same time, efforts by black scholars and intellectuals to preserve the history of their race's achievements--scholarly endeavor that reflected the profound racial segregation in the United States--resulted in a number of books that kept alive the memory of events not typically included in general surveys. Studies on Negro dramas, actors, theater circuits, stock companies, and entertainment venues appeared, making no claims for a comprehensive treatment of the American Stage and consequently seldom serving as sources for later generalists. Works by W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Edith J. R. Isaacs, and Frederick Bond thus represented the tip of the nation's tongue, a site of not-quite-remembered information.     The failure to include Three Plays for a Negro Theater in histories of the American theater may not seem at first glance to be egregious--many individual productions have escaped notice, and in spite of frequent performances of the three plays in the next three decades, they were never revived on Broadway. But what is startling and perplexing--and ultimately very revealing--is the glaring inconsistency between the rave reviews that hailed the daring experiment as a possible first step toward a distinctive national theater and the utter critical silence that set in within months of the debut. Why was a nation, so fascinated with "firsts" and obsessed with innovation, able to forget these first black Broadway actors in a trend-setting production so quickly and so nearly completely? To answer this question is one of the central tasks of this book.     Over the years two explanations for the demise of Three Plays for a Negro Theater have been offered by writers reflecting on African American theater history. The first and most persistent of these noted a fatal coincidence: The plays opened on April 5, 1917, and the next day, the United States entered the Great War in Europe. James Weldon Johnson, for example, argued that "the increasing stress of war was too great, even for stronger enterprises in the theatre, and it crushed them out." Like others who blamed the short run of the plays on the coming of war, Johnson implied that a frivolous diversion on the stage could not compete with the weighty matter of war.     The playwright himself offered the second explanation for his plays' lack of success. He believed that the actors he selected to interpret his plays simply lacked the talent to put the plays over. Had they been more experienced, better trained, or more familiar with working behind the footlights, they might have been able to breathe life into their roles and help audiences and critics see the artistic merit of these unusual dramas. Sadly, however, he had been unable to find any actors with stage training and experience, so he had been forced to make do with the men and women who came forward during auditions. The production, he believed, could not overcome their weak performances.     The United States' declaration of war on the day after the three plays opened at the Garden no doubt did have an effect on the production and its place in American theater history, but not for the reasons writers like Johnson offered. A brief look at other forms of entertainment during the war shows that the war did not dampen American enthusiasm for popular diversions. The budding film industry, for instance, blossomed between 1914 and 1918, enjoying increases in both the number and quality of films. Actors like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin gained respect and prestige as entertainers who supported the war effort by appearing at patriotic rallies and by selling Liberty Bonds. The war scarcely dampened public enthusiasm for jazz and dancing, two popular diversions of the 1910s. And in spite of early concerns that the war would spell doom for American theaters, theater managers staged new productions, and the world of make-believe carried on as American casualty counts mounted.     The war did not upstage Torrence's dramas, or the all-black cast, any more than these other forms of entertainment, but it did contribute to their early closing. The war inspired a kind of national self-consciousness about American character and citizenship that provided the backdrop against which the plays were viewed and evaluated. The theatrical experiment, its initial triumph, and the eventual critical silence in a nation at war suggest that the themes explored in Torrence's plays, the author's perspective, and the black performances could not be faced squarely by a country at war. As cultural and political leaders crafted a national campaign dedicated to "making the world safe for democracy," writers like Lawrence Southerland argued that "the time is ripe for a big patriotic play voicing the sentiments of our people. The native dramatist never had a more splendid opportunity." Torrence's plays apparently articulated "sentiments" that made people uncomfortable; after all, it is difficult to reconcile racial injustice with the ideal of equality, a hallmark of the American way.     Writers and critics did talk about the plays, even as they talked about war. What they said about what they saw in the Garden and Garrick Theatres, I argue, betrays deep doubts that blacks qualified as citizens and provides important insights into the role of culture in defining citizenship in a way that bolstered the reality of social inequality in the theaters of New York as well as in the theater of war.     Torrence's explanation, while not particularly persuasive, reveals the ways racism works. Contrary to Torrence's belief that none of the actors had training or experience, the cast represented an extraordinarily seasoned and talented cross-section of the black acting fraternity in the 1910s. Torrence's disparagement of the performances of his cast members points to the racial dimension of the term Great White Way . Torrence and many of the men and women who paid to see performances of his three plays knew absolutely nothing about the people, institutions, training opportunities, and drama criticism that dominated black stages in Harlem, Chicago, Washington, D. C., and national theater circuits. Their ignorance of past performances by the actors, their ungrounded assumptions about the absence of professionalism in African American theaters, and their invidious comparisons with white actors all demonstrate their immersion in white theater and their insistence that white theater and American theater were synonymous.     The very weakness of Torrence's explanation for the failure of his three plays to remain on Broadway for more than a few weeks points to an even more persuasive approach to the plays. His ignorance of black theater and actors as well as his implicitly white assumptions about what qualified as talent, training, and experience force us to see this production and its fate as a revealing episode in the shaping of American culture by a racially diverse society. Perhaps without intending to do so, the dramas, by advancing Negro themes as essentially American themes, posed a number of questions. How does a diverse people express itself culturally? Who decides what is an accurate reflection when a people collectively stands before the looking glass of culture? What happens when this mirror contains dead spots that refuse to reflect the visages of some, or when they look into the mirror expecting to see one image and find instead an unfamiliar or unattractive face looking back?     The story of the first black actors on Broadway forces us to consider these matters quite seriously. For the Great White Way, having gotten its name from the thousands of brilliant lights that illuminated streets and marquees in New York's famed theater district, was white in the more important racial sense and consequently reflected only a portion of the people who made up the body politic in the early twentieth century. The arrival of the first black actors in this province of white playwrights, managers, actors, and plays represented the first major confrontation of racialized assumptions about art and nationality in the twentieth-century American theater. The first African American actors to take their places before the footlights of a Broadway stage did more than interpret their parts and speak their lines. They were engaged in a race drama that sounded their desire to become legitimate participants in the making of American culture--to find their reflections in the looking glass of culture. Thus, attempting to solve the mystery surrounding their debut promises to shed light on the ways Americans dealt with the desire for biracial cultural collaboration.     These two episodes--the debut of African Americans on Broadway and the United States' entry into the First World War--viewed together promise to reveal a great deal about the painful birth pangs of modern "Aframerican" culture in the 1920s, the subject of Ann Douglas's fascinating book, Terrible Honesty . I believe that the 1917 debut of black performers in serious drama on Broadway paved the way for this later, more pervasive interracial cultural development. At the same time, because this study is more narrowly focused on the participants in and events surrounding a single, history-making production, and because it pays as much attention to cultural reception as to cultural expression, I offer a less optimistic assessment of cross-race cultural collaboration. One can point to any number of artistic achievements that represent the combined efforts of blacks and whites, but joint efforts do not necessarily mean that all contributors will receive the same recognition for their parts in the whole. One advantage of a pointed examination such as this one is that the crosscurrents, inequality, and ambiguity of cultural hybrids emerge as clearly as the beautiful image of black and white artists joining hands across the color line.     Shining the spotlight on this single event offers another advantage as well--one can chart with some thoroughness the extent to which the messages of the dramas resonated in one of the nation's important cultural centers. What critics and other witnesses wrote about the plays indicates what they saw and what they agreed or disagreed with, what they liked or disliked, and what made them reconsider or staunchly uphold cherished beliefs. Beyond these individual responses to and reflections on the content of the plays, critics fashioned their own narratives as they summarized the basic plots for their readers. These summaries reveal what parts of the dramas mattered to the witnesses, what parts they ignored, and how they transformed the playwright's, director's, and actors' aims by adding their own descriptive flourishes and behind-the-hand commentary.     Buried in these eyewitness accounts lie important clues to the mystery of the shifting fortunes of the dramas of Negro life in a land preparing for war. Expression and reception both contribute to the process by which people define their bedrock values and the ground rules for social interaction by which they agree to abide. In April 1917, the dramatist, stage decorator, and cast expressed a desire to present race dramas as fundamentally American plays. At the same time, those who reported on their efforts found language that not only reinforced stereotypical views of African Americans but also cast doubt on the black claim to citizenship. Under ordinary circumstances the claims and counterclaims would have made for lively debate and open cultural conflict. In a nation on the eve of assembling an army of citizen soldiers, these differences, I argue, helped account for the averted eyes and eventual cultural amnesia. Closing ranks to make the world safe for democracy demanded that a national self-image that could be construed as negative or antidemocratic be denounced, ignored, or forgotten. The Theater and National Culture --------------------------------------------------------------------------- One of the claims of this study is that the theater offers more than diversion and can be studied as one site where national culture is made, a claim that requires some explanation. The first matter to consider is the relationship between the theater in general and a nation's culture. There are, of course, many ways that a people can consider its core values--in speeches by statesmen, sermons, national historical narratives, fiction, and advice literature, to name but a few. As a public venue in which action and dialogue combine to tell a story, the theater also represents a setting in which ideas and ideals are presented, observed, and, in due time, embraced, ignored, or rejected. As such, theaters are potentially important sites for the shaping of public culture.     More difficult to sort out, however, is when and how the theater shapes national culture. Do theaters shape culture by presenting plays their managers believe reflect views already widely held? Does the appearance of a controversial play automatically upset the applecart of culture? Do all theaters in all places have an equal impact on the national conversation about national values and character? In recent years, scholars of national theater have suggested that the best way of gauging the role of a theater in the process of culture is to take into account its location and influence and to place its productions in the context of more generalized discussion.     While theaters dotted the landscape of the United States in the early 1900s--even most small towns boasted a lyceum, community theater, opera house, or popular auditorium--relatively few of these venues presented shows that elicited commentary by critics, scholars, and entertainers writing for publications with a national readership. Without diminishing the importance of small town theaters in advancing or curbing certain themes on the stage for their respective communities, it is safe to say that national trends were set in America's cities, and the most important theater district in the United States, which in the early 1900s lacked a national theater, was Broadway in New York. Broadway represented the pinnacle of theatrical achievement in the early twentieth century, and discussions about the long-sought-after American drama focused on productions that appeared in theaters on the Great White Way. Drama pages in newspapers and many theater periodicals took the nation's theatrical pulse on this artery of entertainment in New York City. Indeed, it was the appearance of black actors specifically on a Broadway stage that excited curiosity and interest, for most of the performers in the three plays had appeared before the public on other stages from Chicago to New York to Washington, D. C., and in many towns in between. Their performances elsewhere had gone unheeded; their performance on Broadway made headlines.     To understand what a particular Broadway production might mean requires contextualization. Any given production is little more than a contribution to an ongoing conversation--a point of view, a judgment, an idea. It is not just the substance of that view, however, that commands attention; the range of alternatives to it must be understood as well. Any given drama, therefore, succeeds in advancing an idea and seeking widespread acceptance among those who hear it, write or read about it, or choose to repeat it in another cultural forum. The theater, then, functions as a public venue in which positions vie for--but may or may not achieve--cultural legitimacy. Studying the presentation of ideas and responses to them becomes the study of a more general process by which a society determines what is legitimate, acceptable, representative, and what belongs beyond the pale.     In the early twentieth century, virtually any play written by an American and performed on Broadway became subject to particularly close scrutiny--especially when it claimed to be an "American" drama. Since the turn of the century, artists in many fields of endeavor had sought ways to express the essence of American life, and they had worried aloud in speeches, articles, and books that the United States continued to look in all the wrong places for inspiration and that the great American drama, novel, poem, architectural style, or composition had yet to be created. As the country increasingly became involved in important international relations, cultural commentators yearned for native arts that matched the nation's rising status in world affairs. The suggestion, made by critics like Robert Benchley and Lester A. Walton, that Three Plays for a Negro Theater might well be a pioneering work of American drama placed the production--and the discussion that surrounded it--squarely in the middle of this ongoing debate.     The linking of the three plays and an American dramatic tradition, not surprisingly, brought to light the unspoken racial assumptions that had underlain the quest for a great American drama for more than two decades, and it revealed the racist assumptions made about African Americans in society and on stage. These two strands, suddenly exposed, were subtly intertwined with and dependent upon one another, for the "whiteness" of the American Stage was more often than not taken for granted rather than explained and became apparent only through comparison with "blackness." Themes and characters in the most celebrated American plays of the turn of the century provided some markers of race. Melodramas set in the frontier typically featured homesteaders, miners, claim-jumpers, and bankers, all fashioned from stock white figures. Detectives and crooks matched wits in popular mysteries that required nearly equal characters. And social dramas that explored such themes as loveless marriage, female desire for independence, or love without marriage focused on middle-class men and women. These markers--the frontier, the law, and the parlor--were not inherently white, but they did not easily or automatically conjure up nonwhite mental images.     When writers described the representative American drama, however, they inched a bit closer to race-specific language. In discussing the great themes for American drama, for example, a writer for Theatre Magazine in 1908 argued that "the American has sentiment, plenty of it, the sentiment of the conqueror," and that the insurgent plays of Eugene Walter--the subject of the piece--captured the American as "a creature of mighty impulse and tremendous achievement, the whole-souled, big-brained man who is a pioneer." He believed that themes for American plays abounded if derived from the people: "We are a big, powerful people with work to do. We are proud of our work and anxious to do it. That is what it is to be an American." Two years later, Randolph Hartley provided a composite of the new American dramatist whose work had begun to catch the essence of American life. "Nationality, American; Age, 30 years; Height, 5 feet 10 inches; Weight, 165 pounds; Features, regular, clean shaven.... Said citizen is noticeably quiet in demeanor and dress, and has the general appearance of a prosperous professional man," he wrote. Drawn as a composite of such dramatists as W. J. Hurlbut, Edward Sheldon, A. E. Thomas, and P. E. Brown, the American playwright was "clear of head, clean of speech, serious of purpose, well-educated, totally devoid of pose."     "Conqueror," "pioneer," "proud of work," an "active" people, and "serious of purpose"--these terms take on a white cast when juxtaposed against the terms reserved for African Americans. Consider, for example, the opening passage of Burns Mantle's review of Three Plays for a Negro Theater: "The American negro is to the American white man, essentially a comic figure" who "represents to the children of the men who freed him from slavery the irresponsible child of nature who accepts his small world as a playground and life as much of a frolic as he can make it." According to common wisdom, Americans were responsible, hardworking, conquering men; here, African Americans were irresponsible, playful, formerly enslaved children. The contrast between the two sets of traits could not be sharper. Louis Sherwin made the same point more obliquely when he wrote that none of Torrence's characters stole chickens or brandished a razor blade, "so naturally New York audiences did not recognize these characters as negroes." From comments such as these, which were repeated many times over, the contrast between the generic American and the African American betrays the essential whiteness of the former.     The incongruity between Torrence's three plays and the preconceived ideal of the great American drama sparked a good deal of the ambivalence about the production and calls to our attention the challenge this biracial collaborative expression posed for American identity. Could a national dramatic tradition rest securely on a foundation anchored in the experience of African Americans? Then, as now, the question begged for an answer, and it forced the more thoughtful to consider how a nation like the United States, with its diverse population, could and should express itself.     The responses to that question will recur as a leitmotif in this study, for whether direct, evasive, or obdurate, those responses constituted a critical contest over the shape and substance of American culture. As the progressive cultural amnesia of 1917 attests, Americans then were unprepared to face the issue squarely. The flowering of "Aframerican" culture in the following decade suggests that eventually Americans found ways to exploit their differences in the creation of distinctive national art.     An important example of successful cross-racial cultural production can be seen in the stunning popularity of African American musical forms like ragtime and jazz. In spite of considerable resistance from so-called "serious" musicians, Americans in the first two decades of the twentieth century hailed ragtime as their quintessential national music, even as they acknowledged its roots in African American culture. As ragtime gave ground to jazz in the late 1910s and early 1920s, no one argued with its essential Americanness or with its ties to black life. Not only did African American rhythms, improvisational style, and melodic riffs leaven American popular music, but also African American artists increasingly performed in prominent places, shared the stage with white artists, and became visible as American celebrities.     Without aiming to diminish the significance and the promise of cross-racial music like jazz or ragtime, I think it is imperative to recognize crucial differences between music and drama as art forms expressive of national culture, for the desire to create a unique hybrid culture should not divert attention from ongoing social exclusion and economic exploitation nor should scholars naively underestimate the difficulty of creating such a hybrid. In my recent biography of Scott Joplin, the "King of Ragtime" in the early 1900s, I argued that ragtime achieved enormous popularity nationwide among white and black listeners because it spoke to various communities in different ways. To African Americans it captured familiar sounds and beats that had reverberated in their communities for decades. To whites, frustrated with the unfulfilling strictures of Victorianism, it beckoned toward a culture of expressiveness and exuberance and dovetailed with a more general transformation of cultural values. From all listeners it called forth movement--swaying, toe-tapping, knee-slapping, and hand-clapping--and gaiety.     Both the form and the experience of the music contributed to a subdued awareness of the racial conflict that was in a sense overcome in the music. Because composers like Joplin established set patterns for writing this music and, indeed, wrote it using conventional notation, key indicator, time, and meter, ragtime became a musical genre that any composer, regardless of race, could write. The quality of compositions varied, but the essential sound and form required the blending of African American and European melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, which gave ragtime its distinctive flavor. Hearing or reproducing this American music did not force either the audience or the performer to contemplate the plantation setting that nurtured its constituent parts. In fact, contrary to the harsh reality of slavery that helped forge two musical traditions into one distinctly New World music, ragtime music evoked immediate pleasure rather than dark reveries on man's inhumanity to man. The cakewalks, two-steps, and slow drags inspired by ragtime music featured up-tempo movements and frivolity. And even writers like Carl Van Vechten, who happily acknowledged ragtime as "a hybrid product" of black and white musical influences, could downplay the black by identifying such white ragtime musicians as Irving Berlin and Louis Hirsch as the chief creators of America's only national music.     Race dramas contrasted sharply with race music. Like ragtime, they grew out of experiences on the old plantations. But seeing the dark faces of the actors and the crude settings that represented their homes made it impossible to ignore the matter of race. Characters in race dramas were not always good-natured and fun-loving; they portrayed emotions other than irrepressible joy. And the tragedies of their lives arose from their positions in and treatment by white American society. The evil forces arrayed against African American protagonists included race prejudice and white characters disposed to act on it. Of course, evil characters locked horns with good characters in more typical American plays--crooks, claim-jumpers, and cheating husbands all failed in some way to live up to American ideals. But the difference between those stock bad guys and the antagonists in race dramas lay in the source of their evil. The former erred as individuals, the latter as products of a system based on inequality, exploitation, racial oppression, and violence. Race dramas--unlike race music--forced Americans to confront slavery as a blot on the nation's past that marred their desired self-image.     The distinction between music and drama was vividly borne out in response to Torrence's three plays. Without exception, critics loved the Clef Club performances between plays, finding nothing politically or aesthetically upsetting in their music. The New York Sun , for instance, sang the praises of the black musician who "loves to strum his banjo, to sing his ragtime melody and shuffle his syncopated rhythm all at the same time," and asserted that the Clef Club Orchestra played music that reflected "the very spirit of the Sunny South." Even Alexander Woollcott, who disliked the plays, noted at the end of his review that the audience "enjoyed greatly" the African American orchestra, which, he observed, "had the whole audience swaying to the great strains of `Go Down Moses.'"     The dramas themselves, however, presented more of a problem, on which African American critics, most sensitive to the challenge they represented, commented. W. E. B. Du Bois put it most poetically when he wrote, "The American world is not a white world in tint of flesh, but white shading into every beautiful color from cream to dark brown. Yet the painter has not dared in most cases to paint the scene before him save in white.... Of the beauty and variety which Negro blood has given to millions of American faces almost nothing appears except startling caricatures." Torrence's plays, he believed, were a major break with that tradition because they featured the undistorted stories of dark-skinned people. Lester A. Walton of the New York Age recognized the challenge of the plays even more directly. He wondered aloud how white playgoers would respond to seeing members of their race as forgers, thieves, murderers, and rapists. "[M]aybe our pale-faced brethren will not be as thin-skinned after all," he concluded hopefully.     Part of the burden of this book will be to explore with care the challenge posed by an African American perspective to American theatrical expectations and to recognize the obstacles to as well as the desirability of cultural hybridity. Cross-race cultural collaboration coexisted with racial inequality, and what I hope to show is that the former did not necessarily work against the latter. Other scholars have demonstrated the myriad ways that American culture has drawn life from collaboration across the color lines. Susan Gubar's Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture and Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s provide a mountain of evidence to support the view that America's distinctive cultural productions depended upon the desire to blur the line between races, to slide from one racial position to another, and to blend multiple perspectives into unique new world artistic expression. Before we rush to congratulate ourselves for overcoming profound racial divisions through cultural collaboration, however, we would do well to remember that cultural victories ring hollow when they are not accompanied by social and economic improvement. As the commentaries about these remarkable black actors in 1917 will show, even the most enthusiastic critics found ways of praising their performances without fundamentally challenging racist stereotypes or providing new ways to think about African Americans as American citizens and coworkers in the kingdom of culture.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. IX
Acknowledgmentsp. XVII
1 Opening Night and the Morning Afterp. 1
2 The Road to Broadwayp. 25
3 White Artists behind the Scenesp. 60
4 New Movement, Old Prejudicesp. 112
5 The Talk of the Townp. 146
6 Timing Is Everythingp. 174
7 Forgetting to Rememberp. 203
Notesp. 221
Selected Bibliographyp. 259
Indexp. 269