March 15, 2021

Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater presents “A Past Becomes a Heritage: The Negro Units of the Federal Theatre Project”

The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present A Past Becomes a Heritage: The Negro Units of the Federal Theatre Project, an evening of play readings and a panel discussion in collaboration with New York City-based collective CLASSIX, on March 30 at 7:30 p.m. Recorded excerpts of plays by Black writers from the New Deal-era Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Units, as the units were titled then, will serve as a springboard for a live panel-led conversation on this particular moment in Black and theatrical history. This online event is free and open to the public with advance registration required at This event is a Humanities Council Magic Project launching a partnership between the Lewis Center and CLASSIX to promote engagement with rarely performed classic Black plays.

couple embraces in living room setting while others look on

“The Conjure-Man Dies,” a play based on Rudolph Fisher’s novel, considered the first detective novel by a Black author, produced in 1936 by the Federal Theatre Project’s Harlem Unit. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress Archive

CLASSIX is a collective of artists and scholars dedicated to expanding the classical theater canon through an exploration of dramatic works by Black writers. While the work of some Black playwrights, like Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, are often studied and performed, the works of other seminal Black playwrights are largely unknown. Many significant plays are not available to the general public.

“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.”

“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,” adds Awoye Timpo, a Brooklyn-based director and producer who is one of the five artists who lead CLASSIX.

The Federal Theatre Project was one of several New Deal arts programs that put tens of thousands of artists to work as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1935 Work Projects Administration to help America recover from the Great Depression. Federal Project Number One, championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, focused on the arts and was intended to also entertain and inspire the larger population by creating hope amidst the economic turmoil. Familiar among these projects are murals still present in public buildings throughout the nation.

When FDR took office in 1933, he promised a “New Deal” for everyone. While inequities existed many people from underrepresented groups found employment with the WPA, among them those involved in the Negro Units. Units in 23 cities throughout the country focused on Black writers, performers, musicians and communities.

Excerpts from three plays written as part of the Negro Units’ projects will be read by professional actors during the event.

vintage poster with black block letters, white clouds and black skyscraper

A poster from an early production of Theodore Ward’s play Big White Fog, one of the plays written and produced as part of the Federal Theatre Project Negro Units that premiered in 1938 in Chicago. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress Archive

Big White Fog by Theodore Ward is set in 1922 and explores the divisions in a family through debates around Garveyism and socialism. The play premiered in the Chicago Unit in 1938 and was produced in New York in 1940. Ralph Ellison wrote, “Big White Fog is like no other Negro play. The author takes a movement which has been passed off as a ludicrous effort by Negroes to ape British royalty and reveals in it that dignity of human groping which is characteristic of all oppressed peoples.” CLASSIX artist Dominque Rider directs this reading.

Natural Man by Theodore Browne premiered in 1937 as part of the Seattle Negro Unit. Originally written as a folk opera, the story is an adaptation of the legend of John Henry and is set in the 1880s. In 1941, the piece was produced in New York by the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, without much of the original music. Theodore Browne was the assistant director and resident playwright of the Seattle Negro Unit. This reading is directed by Brooklyn-based theater artist Christina Franklin.

Liberty Deferred was a Living Newspaper, a theatrical form presenting factual information on current events to a popular audience, written by Abram Hill and John D. Silvera for the New York Unit in 1938. The themes of voter suppression and lynching in this experimental and satirical play continue to resonate to this day. Written as a series of vignettes, Liberty Deferred is a stinging and bold journey through history. New York-based director, writer and filmmaker Kimille Howard directs this reading.

The recorded play readings serve as a jumping off point for a live discussion on this largely suppressed cultural history and how these plays written in the 1930s remain relevant today.

Panelists will include Autumn Womack, an assistant professor in Princeton’s Departments of English and African American Studies, whose research focuses on the intersection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American literary culture, visual studies, and print culture; Kinohi Nishikawa, an associate professor in the Departments of English and African American Studies, who specializes in twentieth-century African American literature, book history, and popular culture; and Arminda Thomas of CLASSIX, a dramaturg, theater director, producer and archivist. The panel will be moderated by Michael Dinwiddie, an associate professor at New York University and playwright, whose teaching interests include cultural studies, African American theater history, dramatic writing, filmmaking and ragtime music.

CLASSIX focuses its work on plays by authors of African descent from around the world that speak profoundly to the times in which they were written and resonate deeply with the current time. The organization engages artists, historians, students, professors, producers and audiences to launch these plays into the public imagination and spark productions worldwide. CLASSIX began in 2017 as a series of staged readings in collaboration with the Martin E. Segal Center. In 2019, the collective worked with Theatre for a New Audience to produce an ongoing series of readings. The first play in this series, Alice Childress’s 1966 play, Wedding Band, was produced in February 2020. CLASSIX engages the larger narrative of these plays through conversations with historians and theatre makers on its podcast series, social media platforms, and in live events; educational outreach; new writings and analysis; and an archive of information on its website. In collaboration with colleges and universities, the collective is looking at how the plays can be incorporated into curricula across disciplines, including history, politics, economics and African American studies.

Upcoming events under the new Princeton/CLASSIX partnership include a symposium examining two events that have their 100th anniversary in 2021: the debut of the landmark all-Black Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, and the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Massacre. Other projects being considered include an oral history project, with students helping to gather the recollections of theater makers, and a new course crosslisted with Humanistic Studies on performing the CLASSIX archive, Living Newspapers theater, and documentary theater.

A Past Becomes a Heritage: The Negro Units of the Federal Theatre Project is part of year-long 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.

The recorded play readings and the panel discussion will be live captioned. Attendees in need of other access accommodations are invited to contact the Lewis Center at least two weeks in advance at

To learn more about the Program in Theater and the more than 100 performances, exhibitions, readings, screenings, concerts, and lectures presented each year at the Lewis Center, most of them free, visit

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