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The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre


Edited by Harvey Young


 Cambridge Companions to Literature

Cambridge : University Press, 2013

Paperback. xix+ 292 p. ISBN 978-1107602755. £18.99


Reviewed by Emeline Jouve

Université Toulouse 2-Le Mirail



More than a quarter of a century after the publication of the two first titles of The Cambridge Companions to Literature in 1986, and more than 130 volumes later, Cambridge University Press has recently added a new title to its prestigious collection. The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre published in October 2012 is the latest contribution to a series devoted to African American literature launched in 2004 with The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. As if to make up for their belated interest in African American culture, Cambridge Press has released since 2004 several works introducing their readers to major African American corpora (The Cambridge Companion to Slave Narratives, 2007; The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, 2007; The Cambridge Companion to African American Women’s Literature, 2009) and to works by eminent thinkers and writers (The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison, 2005; The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson, 2007; The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison, 2007; The Cambridge Companion to W.E.B. Du Bois, 2008; The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglas, 2009; The Cambridge Companion to Malcom X, 2010). The long-standing tradition of performance dating back to the era of the triangular trade is central to African American culture, and a whole book devoted to theatre and drama appears as a logical and essential supplement to the Cambridge collection on African American Literature. This new work deals with both theatre and drama, despite its title, which seems to overlook the attention given in it to the latter, to the written text.

To head its exploration of the history of African American drama and theatre, Cambridge Press has entrusted Harvey Young with the direction of this work, a relevant choice as Young stands as one of the leading scholars in the field of Black Plays and Performance. Associate Professor of Theatre at Northwestern University, USA, Young’s expertise compels admiration: his numerous well-documented books and articles not only display his wide interests but also demonstrate his scientific rigour—Young’s latest works include: Theatre & Race (2013), Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (2010); “Plaitform Concerns: Trey Anthony’s Da Kink in My Hair” (2012), “A Racial Concern: Adrienne Kennedy’s Diary of Lights” (2012), “A Black Cat and Other Plays: African-American Productions of Tennessee William’s Drama” (2012), “The Politics of Lydia Diamond’s Adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye” (2012).

To chronicle the evolution of African American drama and theatre from antebellum United States to the present day, Young has invited the contributions of other major specialists who convincingly show that African Americans have created a distinctive dramatic and theatrical subgenre on the American stage, a subgenre informed by their unique experiences as captives, or descendants of captives, uprooted from their native Africa. To bring to the fore the evolutionary nature of African American drama and theatre, which has evolved through time along with the social and political context, the articles are presented chronologically. The thirteen chapters which make up The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre cover four main periods: “antebellum and Reconstruction, the New Negro, the Black Arts Movement, and the post-black” [6]. This diachronic organisation is characteristic of the historical perspective adopted in the book. Rather than analysing the aesthetic tenets of the different works under scrutiny, the contributors focus on the social and political dimensions of the various dramatic and theatrical productions discussed.

The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre reads like a tribute to African American artists eager to break away from the stereotypical images of blackness—it is for this reason that the minstrelsy tradition of black-facing has not found its way into the pages of the anthology. The thirteen contributors view drama and theatre as vehicles of empowerment for African Americans.

In “Slavery, Performance, and the Design of African American Theatre,” literary and cultural historian Douglas A. Jones, Jr. from Rutgers University, focuses on the ambivalent nature of antebellum African American performances and theatre. Building upon Frederic Douglass’s views, the author of The Captive Stage: Black Exception, Performance, and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North (2013) demonstrates how the dominant African American performance practices “entrenched sociopolitical norms such as slavery and white supremacy, but also recognised how slaves and free people of colour used performance to fashion modes of protest and pleasure” [15]. To make his point, Jones considers both the coerced performances of black captives—like the dances that took place on slave ships or those preceding auctions to please their masters—and voluntary performances—such as songs of lamentation or “plantation wild songs”—which contributed to their alienation at the same time as they forged bonds among Blacks, fostering a liberating sense of community. The originality of Jones’ article notably lies in his analysis of William Alexander Brown’s theatre—often introduced as the first Black Theatre—as he notes that the shows in this antebellum black institution were paradoxically similar to the slave performances aboard ships, or in plantations, as they sustained the stereotypical images of black people while nurturing black collectivity.

Spanning “from the colonial era through the beginning of the twentieth century,” Heather S. Nathan’s article centres on the representations of “Slave Rebellions on the National Stage” as indicated by the title [35]. Professor of Theatre at the University of Maryland, Nathan is the author of Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson (2003) and Slavery and Sentiment on the American Stage, 1781-1861 (2009; 2013). Nathan’s contribution to The Cambridge Companion reads as an outgrowth of her latest book in that she enlarges on her analysis of the representations of slavery beyond 1861 by focusing on the historical events which informed them. As Harvey Young rightly points out in his introduction, Nathan “reveals that plays, penned by both white and black playwrights, frequently depicted the unjust conditions to which black men and women were subjected [and thus] framed rebellion and revolt as justifiable acts” [10].

In “Early Black American on Broadway,” Assistant Professor of Theatre at Tufts University, Monica White Ndoudou pays tribute to Vaudeville entertainers Bert Williams (1874-1922) and his partner George Walker (1873-1911), and to playwright Langston Hughes (1902-1967), whom she introduces as pioneers breaking away from stereotypical representations of African Americans and thus leading the way to new more realistic portrayals of Black Americans on Broadway. If Ndoudou convincingly demonstrates that these three artists greatly contributed to the renewal of the portrayals of African Americans on stage, her transition from Williams and Walker to their disciple Hughes, cast as the representative of First Wave African American playwrights, seems abrupt.

Langston Hughes stands as a mediator between Ndounou’s article and that of Soyica Diggs Colbert, who focuses on those playwrights who participated in the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, and author of The Black Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage (2011), Colbert offers an original insight into what has also been known as “The Negro Movement” as she argues that the locus of the Harlem Renaissance drama was Washington DC, and not New York City; she also asserts that, contrary to prevailing opinions, the Harlem Renaissance movement did not start in 1919 but in 1916, when Angelina Weld Grimké’s play against lynching and racial violence, Rachel, was first produced. Colbert is the first author of the collection who turns the spotlight on female African American artists. Therefore, alongside the works of Hughes and Willis Richardson (1889-1977), she explores the plays by Grimké (1880-1958) but also Georgia Douglas Jonhson (1880-1966), Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and May Miller (1899-1995). Colbert shows that their works were “consonant with the New Negro and Harlem Renaissance ideologies” [85].

Instrumental in the emergence of the dramatic Harlem Renaissance, “The Negro Little Theatre Movement,” after which Jonathan Shandell has entitled his paper, provided homes for African American theatre artists between the 1910s and the 1930s. Discussing several small independent theatres which flourished across the country—the Anita Bush Stock Company, the Ethiopian Art Theatre, the Krigwa Players, the Harlem Suitcase Company, and the Kuramu Theatre—, the Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts at Arcadia University demonstrates the impact of the Negro Little Theatre Movement on the American theatrical landscape. The originality of Shandell’s contribution notably lies in his final brief discussion of the Federal Theatre Project’s “Negro Units” which, he argues, bore aesthetic and ideological similarities to the independent theatres of the Negro Little Theatre Movement.

Women hold centre stage in “African American Women Dramatists, 1930-1960” by Adrienne Macki Braconi, Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut. Braconi focuses on works by Eulalie Spence (1894-1981) and Alice Childress (1912-1994), two playwrights who, she asserts, paved the way for Black female playwrights including Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), author of the great masterpiece A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Braconi’s original decision to devote a whole section of her article to Spence, who is not as well known as Childress and Hansberry in spite of her prolific career, is emblematic of the scholar’s eagerness to revise the traditional history of the African American stage in which men have retained a place of honour. Braconi’s revisionist ambitions also show in her redefinition of Spence’s, Childress’s and Hansberry’s plays as political when scholars have described them, in Young’s words, as “apolitical or not sufficiently political” [11]. Informed by the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement, the three playwrights’ works denounce the “the plague of materialism” in an age of capitalism “commodi[fying] black bodies” [118].

In “Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement,” Aimee Zygmonski, Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Nevada, returns to the artistic branch of the Black Power Movement initiated by Amiri Baraka. She argues that the legacy of this artistic movement has often been underrated on account of its short lifespan and thus she attempts to reassess the importance of Baraka’s influence. The scholar shows that the Black Arts Movement notably affected theatrical productions as it opened the way for the emergence of playwrights who overtly expressed “their rage at the injustices of American society” [152]. To demonstrate further the extent of the radicalism of Baraka’s artistic and political enterprise, which inspired future generations, Zygmonski offers a close reading of Baraka’s 1964 play Dutchman and an analysis of The Black Arts Repertory and School which opened in 1965 on the playwright’s initiative.

Assistant Professor in Theatre and Interdisciplinary Arts at Worcester State College, MA, Samuel O’Connell immerses his readers in the world of the Broadway musical Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) by Melvin Van Peebles. “Fragmented Musicals and 1970s Soul Aesthetic,” which opens on a definition—or to some extent on a re-definition—of black music, brings us back to the Black Arts Movement: O’Connell demonstrates that Peebles’s politically conscious musical not only brought “the contemporary aesthetics of black creative expression to Broadway” but also reinvented a new form of fragmented black music representative of the political fragmentations and tensions of which the Movement and Black Power were mouthpieces [155].

“Spectacles of Whiteness from Adrienne Kennedy to Suzan-Lori Parks” by Faedra Chatard Carpenter, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, explores the representations of whiteness in the works of four contemporary African American playwrights: Adrienne Kennedy (1931-.), Douglas Turner Ward (1930-.), Lydia R. Diamond (1969-.), Suzan-Lori Parks (1963-.) Focusing on how African-Americans have impersonated white characters, Carpenter reverses the traditional scholarly viewpoint: if transracial performances have been largely studied, the interest has mainly been on the impersonation of minorities by the domineering group, and therefore on blackfacing, even, she insists, if whitefacing has been a long-lived practice. Through her original enterprise to look at how contemporary Black artists represent whiteness on stage, the author considers the processes of deconstruction of white supremacy through whitefacing or “other performance tactics used to signify embodied whiteness” [175].

 “African American Performance and Community Engagement” is signed by Nadine George-Graves, Professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, and author of The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900-1940 (2000) and Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of Dance Theater, Community Engagement and Working It Out (2010). In this chapter, she casts light on the works of producer Barbara Ann Teer (1937-2008), of playwright Ntozake Shange (1948-.) and of choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (1950-.) As her title implies, she is interested in how the performing arts can build up a sense of community, in how African American artists “forge relationships (practically, financially, theoretically, and ideologically) with larger African American social missions” [196]. George-Graves focuses on the strategies adopted by Teer, Shange and Zollar to bring about “public advocacy and healing” [201] and shows how they have tried to empower their audience through “the use of Africanist values and aesthetics,” “the development of techniques alternative to mainstream performing arts initiatives,” the “promotion of self-knowledge in terms of education and affirmation,” “the embrace of spirituality” and the “endeavour to affect transformation, empowerment, and liberation” [202].

Sandra G. Shannon’s study, “Women Playwrights Who Cross Cultural Borders,” spans over a quarter of a century as she sheds light on the works of Alice Childress (1912-1994), Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), Lynn Nottage (1964-.) and Adrienne Kennedy (1964-.) The study of Shannon, Professor of Dramatic Literature at Howard University, and author of The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson (1996) and August Wilson’s Fences: A Reference Guide (2003), cannot however be qualified as diachronic: she indeed breaks away from chronology as she opens and ends her chapter with two contemporary playwrights, Nottage and Kennedy, and, unfortunately, does not show how Childress’s and Hansberry’s works articulate with that of their successors. Shanon’s analysis of “the extent to which the external gaze of African American playwrights beyond America’s borders has impacted their writing, their global sensitivity, and their geopolitics” demonstrates the ability of the female artists to speak to the majority through cultural syncretism [216].

Professor of African American Studies and Theatre at Northwestern University, and author of Ancient Songs Set Ablaze: The Theatre of Femi Osofisan (1996), Sandra L. Richard explores the similarities and differences among writers from the African Diaspora and establishes a typology of African Diaspora drama. In order to identify the nature of the African ethos, she considers in “African Diaspora Drama” the works by playwrights of African ancestors from Canada, the United States, and the West Indies.

Harry J. Elam, Jr., Professor at Stanford University and author of Taking to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka (2001) and The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson (2004), explores the repercussions of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 on the theatrical world. In “Black Theatre in the Age of Obama,” Elam not only considers the impact on the contemporary stage but also on the way critics and scholars have approached African American drama and theatre in the aftermath of the election. While the previous chapters demonstrated how art attempts to influence institutional politics, Elam successfully demonstrate how institutional politics can influence art and the approach to it.

Faithful to the prerequisites of the Cambridge Companion series, Harvey Young and the contributors to The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre provide their readers with an introduction to the history of African American drama and theatre. Yet, this anthology of essays offers much more than a comprehensive presentation of the specificities of African American productions, as the contributors do not hesitate to question some of the established definitions or to defend original assumptions in order to generate debate and stimulate new discussions.


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