A Voice of Their Own

African-American Playwrights, Introduction

In the second stanza of his poem “Note on the Commercial Theatre,” Langston Hughes writes:

You also took my spirituals and gone.
You put me in Macbeth and Carmen Jones
And all kinds of Swing Mikados
And in everything but what’s about me—
But someday somebody’ll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me—
Black and beautiful—
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Me myself!

Yes, it’ll be me.

Hughes addresses the appropriation of black culture and the parallel stereotyping of African Americans by a white theatrical tradition. The poem speaks to the fact that, for approximately the first 150 years of American theatre, nearly all African-American characters were created by white playwrights and often performed by white actors in blackface. African-American playwrights did not have a voice in the popular theatre of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nor did they have a legitimate venue for any works that they may have created.

While several early African-American actors and playwrights found success in European theatres, those who remained in America were forced to conform to the expectations of white theatre audiences. Not until the latter half of the nineteenth century did African-American musical theatre movements begin to form. African-American minstrel troupes and writers started to create musicals that catered to African-American audiences that assembled in church halls, community centers, and small local theatres and auditoriums on the periphery of mainstream American theatre.

With the Harlem Renaissance in New York City in the 1920s, the surge and prominence of African-American artistic talent paved the way for African-American playwrights to emerge on the Broadway and Off-Broadway scene in the middle of the twentieth century. The American stage finally saw fully realized African-American characters and powerful portrayals of African-American life.