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Black Arts and Culture

Black History Theater: Black Legacy Dates To Colonial America

Delve into the captivating history of Black theater, tracing its origins from Colonial America to its modern-day evolution. Explore the resilience, creativity, and cultural significance of African-American theatrical expression, from HBCU programs to the pioneering efforts of Black playwrights.

#BlackTheater #AfricanAmericanHistory #TheatricalLegacy #HBCUs #BlackPlaywrights

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter Emeritus
New Journal and Guide

(PART ONE OF TWO)

During Black History Month (BHM) 2024, the nation is celebrating African-Americans’ contribution to Arts and Entertainment in this nation and globally.

Theater is a blending of Black ritual, storytelling, literature, poetry, visual arts, dance and acting on a stage.

It reveals the varied layers of African-American culture, history, struggle and triumph during four centuries in the Americas.

Black theater is layered with academic, commercial and community networks of Black theater groups and companies. Many groups own their theaters and stages, providing samples of the huge canon of Black musicals, dramas, comedy, historical interpretation or political protest.

“Black Theatre Matters,” a theater advocacy group, records trending topics, experts, support documents and celebrates the achievements of Black theater artists throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

On its website there is a growing list of Black theater enterprises in 28 states, Virgin Islands and Washington D.C.

New York City, which boasts the “Great White Way” in Manhattan, has 20 Black theater companies, with 12 of them operating out of their own houses.

The institutions preparing the most talent, and opportunity to the stage for Black artists, are the nation’s 120-plus Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

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HBCU.COM has graded and listed 34 HBCUs offering theater programs with degrees. The most HBCUs with schools with such programs are in North Carolina (7), Georgia (6), Virginia (4), Mississippi (3, and Alabama (3).

Based on resources, student enrollment, faculty, and curriculum offered, these schools were rated from 5 stars to 3 or lower.

HBCU.COM rates Howard University at the top. Hampton University is ranked 5, Virginia State 7, and NSU 10, and all have five stars. Virginia Union sits at 24 with 4.5 stars.

Professor Anthony M. Stockard is Norfolk State University Theatre Company’s Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the school’s program.

He said that theater of some fashion has been offered at HBCUs since the founding of the first ones in the 19th Century.

Eighty-nine-year-old NSU’s program was among them when it was born as the Norfolk Unit of Virginia Union University. He said one of the first students’ activities at the school was a theater group.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Stockard earned a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Alabama State University and an MFA in Theatre Arts from Brandeis. Since Stockard’s arrival ten years ago, the NSU Theatre Program has been reinvigorated.

The original NSU theater group, The Norfolk State Players, has been rebranded as the Norfolk State University Theatre Company, thanks to Stockard.

He lobbied the school to provide the resources which have increased the number of students to 80 now. Instead of him and 13 students, when he first arrived, today, there are eight faculty members and a program which has been enabled to provide a Degree in Theatre.

The school built a state-of-the-art theater in the reincarnated Brown Hall, where Stockard and his student Thespians provide highly regarded works before an increased number of patrons.

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The Norfolk State University Theatre Company has collaborated on a number of productions with Norfolk’s Virginia State Company at Wells Theater.

Stockard said HBCU theater programs are a constant resource for training talent, producing works to allow them to use their skills and readying them for the professional circuit.

“There is never any question about opportunity or space for a Black student at an HBCU compared to a Traditionally White Institutions (TWI),” said Stockard. “They don’t have to wait to be cast as the lone Black person in a play. Or wait for the school to have enough Black students to cast an all-Black play.”

Today the area’s two main HBCUs – NSU and Hampton University – provide the two main stages for the current and historic canon of Black Theater in Hampton Roads.

But Stockard revealed that the African-American Repertory Theatre of Virginia in Richmond, may no longer be the lone commercial professional equity Theater Company in Virginia.

He said that the Virginia Arts Festival, NSU and city of Norfolk are joining forces to create a Black Equity Theater group under the roof of the Historic Attucks Theater.

Details are in the works to debut the operation during the summer and the annual Juneteenth Celebrations.

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The curtain on the legacy of Black Theater History began when Blacks were slaves during Colonial America.

Black slaves imported their traditions of oral story telling of folktales, improvisation, songs and dances like the “get down and ring shout.”

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Blacks put on private performances at plantations and the homes of their owners.

The first Black characters to appear on stage in the 17th century were actually white people wearing ‘Blackface’ and playing dim-witted servants.

Blackface grew in popularity in the 1820s and so-called teams of ‘Ethiopian delineators’ performed in comic skits with “Negro Songs.”

These performances gave birth to the racist minstrel shows of Black and white actors.

At the same time in New York, there were Blacks seeking more respectful theater arts. A Free West Indian, William Henry Brown, attempted to get a genuine Black theater company started at the African Grove Theater performing Shakespeare.

It launched the career of Ira Aldridge, deemed the first Black actor of note. But it was quickly shut down by the authorities on trumped up charges of boisterous behavior. The theater burned down five years after it first opened its doors.

Brown is believed to have published the first ever play by a Black playwright, “The Drama of King Shotaway.”

However, no copies of it exists.

In 1841, Dan Emmett and Frank Brower, Blackface performers with the Cincinnati Circus Company, formed the Virginia Minstrels with two other Blackface comedians, Dill Whitock and Dick Pelham. They were the first real minstrel troupe.

By the 1850s, the subject matter of minstrel shows was becoming nastier depicting the sexual abuse that occurred on plantations.

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“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852; it depicted the real plight of slaves. But pro-slavery minstrels reacted to the myth of the idyllic plantation lifestyle.

Three years before the Civil War , William Wells Brown, an abolitionist, published “The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom,” the first Black play ever published.

HBCUs and community theater groups were sprouting up and Black communities were fashioning their own theatrical venues and options.

The first all-Black Broadway musical premiered in 1898, composed by Will Marion Cook and librettist Paul Laurence Dunbar collaborated on the play “Clorindy” at the Casino Theatre’s Roof Garden.

… Continued next week

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