March 5, 2021

A New Partnership Engages Students with the Work of Little-Known Black Playwrights

By Jennifer Altmann

The work of Black playwrights Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson are often studied and performed in theater programs and professional theaters, but many other seminal Black playwrights have never been given the attention they deserve. Influential plays such as Alice Childress’ 1966 Wedding Band, a powerful exploration of the consequences of an interracial love affair in South Carolina in 1918, have faded from view. Other plays are only available on library shelves. “The history of Black theater is not readily accessible,” says Jane Cox, who is director of the Lewis Center’s Program in Theater. “So many important plays by Black authors haven’t been published or reprinted, and they deserve to be read and performed.”

To rectify these gaps, the Lewis Center has launched a partnership with the nonprofit collective CLASSIX through a Princeton Humanities Council Magic Project to promote engagement with the work of rarely performed classic Black plays. Over the next few years, the theater program will host readings, forums and several other initiatives to bring these works to students, professors and the rest of the Princeton community.

black and white poster with white clouds, black skyscraper, and text

Poster for a production of Theodore Ward’s iconic play, “Big White Fog,” at New York’s Federal Theatre. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Entitled A Past Becomes a Heritage: The Negro Units of the Federal Theater Project, the first event under the partnership, on March 30, explores the Negro Unit of the Federal Theater Project, which was established by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression as part of his economic recovery efforts. The Negro Units, as the units were titled then, were created in 23 cities around the country and performed live theater while providing employment to artists. The forum, which will be held online, will examine the lessons, ambitions and failures of the New Deal as it relates to current Black experience and will feature excerpts from plays written by artists in the Negro Units. The excerpts include one of the most iconic plays of the era, Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog, as well as Natural Man by Theodore Browne and Liberty Deferred by Abram Hill and John Silvera. The scenes will be performed and directed by professional artists, with Princeton students who are earning a certificate in theater serving as assistant directors. A panel of professors in various fields will lead a discussion following the performances.

CLASSIX is a collective of theater artists and scholars who set out to explore theater’s classical canon by shining a light on Black playwrights, mainly those whose work appeared before 1990, and examining our current moment through that work. Founded in 2017, the organization partners with artists, theaters and educational institutions to undertake a broad array of initiatives. With artists and academics, CLASSIX hopes to create new productions and academic examinations of Black plays. With colleges and universities, it is looking at how the plays can be incorporated into curricula across disciplines, including history, politics, economics and African American studies. For the public, CLASSIX plans to create a podcast and publish new editions of plays, anthologies, and interviews with theater makers.

“We want the audience to know that these plays exist, that in moments where we are tasked with articulating how devastating national events affect people and communities, that there is a vibrant tradition of theatrical writing that asked these questions nearly 100 years ago,” says Awoye Timpo, a Brooklyn-based director and producer who is one of the five artists who lead CLASSIX. “We want students to have these works in their archive and knowledge base so when they’re thinking about both content and form, they can see the range and complexity of the Black theater writing tradition.”

dominique in black glasses, white tee and green jacket leans against wall

Theater director and CLASSIX team member Dominique Rider. Photo by Raphael Saddick

Dominique Rider, a director and dramaturge based in Brooklyn who is part of the CLASSIX collective, is frustrated by “the many Black writers we don’t know about. Their plays have ended up stuck in drawers. Sometimes I can read reviews, but I can’t find the actual play. It feels like Black artists are having to reinvent the wheel when we are actually standing on tradition.”

Timpo has spent years hunting for information about Bill Gunn’s 1989 play The Forbidden City, in which a middle-class Black family in 1936 Philadelphia struggles with the aftereffects of life in the Jim Crow South, where their baby died after being denied care in white hospitals. The play was performed at the Public Theater in New York City in 1989, but Timpo has only been able to track down a single copy. It’s in a New York City library and cannot be checked out. “It’s extremely frustrating and sad,” she says. “These plays should not be this hard to find.”

The collaboration between CLASSIX and Princeton included an informal gathering in early March that brought together students and professional theater makers who are part of CLASSIX for informal conversation. “We want to make sure students are getting a chance to have professional experiences and connect with these amazing artists while they are still in school,” Timpo says.

A Past Becomes a Heritage: The Negro Units of the Federal Theater Project is a Princeton Humanities Council Magic Project. A signature program of the Humanities Council, a Magic Project is a deliberate intervention designed to create new collaborations and to be an intentional shaping force in the landscape of the humanities at Princeton.

people seated at tables in cafe

The Seattle Negro Repertory Company production of Natural Man, a folk opera version of the John Henry legend, written by actor, director, and playwright Theodore Browne. Pictured here is the Beale Street scene, with Joe Staton as John Henry. The woman at his table is probably the “hostess,” played by Mable Smalley. Federal Theatre Project Collection. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Upcoming events under the new Princeton-CLASSIX partnership for the fall include a virtual all-day symposium on September 10, Shuffle Along and the Tulsa Race Massacre: A Centennial Symposium, which is also a Humanities Council Magic Project. Stacy Wolf, professor of theater in the Lewis Center and American studies, and director of the Program in Music Theater, and Catherine Young, a lecturer in the Writing Program, are co-leading the event, along with the CLASSIX team. Other projects may include an oral history project, with students helping to gather the recollections of theater makers and, potentially, a new course crosslisted with Humanistic Studies on performing the archive, Living Newspapers theater, and documentary theater. “It’s a race against time,” Timpo says. “We want to capture the stories of the artists who were involved in the creation of these plays.”

The events will examine the plays not only in the context of the arts, but also as an essential component of understanding society by exploring them through the lens of economics, politics and Black history. Plays that might be performed would be recorded so that students can watch them in the future.

CLASSIX is building a database of Black theater history with descriptions of plays, playwrights and other artists that will be publicly accessible on its website. It is also creating a podcast series that will explore topics such as ritual theater, minstrel shows and blackface, and experimental and avant-garde forms of theater. These efforts will provide resources to help meet one of CLASSIX’s central goals: ensuring that more seminal plays by Black artists are included in school curriculums around the country.

Victoria Davidjohn ’19, who is working this year as the theater program’s coordinator for academic and student engagement, is serving as a liaison between CLASSIX and the University. She is also the director of the Trenton Youth Theater, a weekend arts program offered by the Lewis Center for Trenton high school students. During her senior year, Davidjohn directed a 68-person production of The Odyssey performed at the McCarter Theatre Center with a cast that included members of the Trenton Children’s Chorus and the Trenton Circus Squad. Last year, she penned a musical theater piece on the civil rights movement with funding from Princeton’s Dale Fellowship. The work of CLASSIX, she says, has greatly contributed to her development as an artist.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn about these playwrights and how they approached the stage,” she says. “They are the shoulders we stand on.” She longs to see these plays on the stage. “I can read the plays, but it’s completely different to experience them as they were meant to be performed.”


*Banner image: Photo from production of Stevedore (1936). Image courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, UW Theatres Photograph Collection.






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