The history of Black theatre is rich and runs deep. At its inception, most Black productions were minstrel shows which came about in the early 19th century. Although those shows were categorized as “Black” performances the actors were white, the producers and writers were white and the productions were performed for a white audience. After the Civil War, Black actors started to perform in these minstrel shows (labeled as “Ethiopian Minstrelsy”) and by the turn of the 20th century Black productions were being produced, written and acted entirely by African Americans. The first Black play published was William Well Brown’s The Escape; or, The Leap of Freedom in 1858.
Fast forward to the Harlem Renaissance and we see emerge bubbling pot of Black theatre productions and companies in big cities such as New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Within these companies grew some of the most iconic Black actors to ever grace a stage. Actor Paul Robeson, began his iconic career at the Ethiopian Art Theatre and during the late 1930s community theatres provided spaces for young African American actors like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to progress in their craft.
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It wasn’t until Langston Hughes’s Mullatto in 1935 that a Black production saw Broadway success. During the same year the creation of the Federal Theatre Project provided a a training ground for Black actors. After WWII, shows by Black playwrights shifted to giving a more realistic look into the Black family and the Black experience as a whole, often highlighting the struggles they faced in America. Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun (1959) displayed a vivid picture of how Black people are portrayed within society all while trying to rummage through the ups and downs of family life. With productions such as Jitney (1982) and Fences (1985) August Wilson depicted the Black experience which were met with critical acclaim. The progression of Black Theatre has always reflected the progression of Black reality and with every role we occupy we bring our history and passion with us. Here’s to creating more opportunities for young Black girls and boys and continuing to grace all stages with our magic.