The Harlem Renaissance, while vital to the development of black theater in the United States, was not enough to help the millions of newly freed slaves create a cultural identity for themselves. Where most willing migrants brought cultural and ethnic traditions with them to their new country, black Americans were mostly wiped of any identity prior to their enslavement, making their connection to distant lands fairly tenuous and their art the most completely American in its conception.
As the Harlem Renaissance tailed off into The Great Depression and World War II, cultural progress dissipated as well, but came roaring back in the 1950’s and 60’s with several different generic strands that ultimately worked together to weave a greater artistic and cultural presence. In an antithetical movement to what was happening with the cultural appropriation of blues music into rock and roll, producers were mounting musicals with all black casts, most famously Hello Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey.
Black playwrights’ contributions to the American canon also began to be recognized. Famously, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry stands out in this movement. Featuring a cast almost completely comprised of black characters, A Raisin in the Sun tells a story of a black family trying to take their piece of the American Dream. It also hearkens back to long-lost African roots and establishes a template for a substantive black cultural identity in the United States.
Other playwrights took that early emergence and ran with it. Amiri Baraka, aka LeRoi Jones, wrote a play called Dutchman. This play is another watershed, taking an unflinching look at relations between whites and blacks through the relationship between a young black man named Clay and a white woman named Lula. It’s definitely worth checking out this short play here.
These themes continued to grow and mature and find voice in other preeminent Black playwrights’ works, including the incomparable Suzan-Lori Parks. Ms. Parks has made a name for herself by taking works of history and literature and passing them through the black experience. Her most recent production, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, &3), based on Homer’s Odyssey, is only the latest example of the amazing work of this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.
No initial look into the work of black theater would be complete without at least one visit to the work of August Wilson, who wrote the Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays set in each of the 10 decades of the 20th century. From The Piano Lesson to Fences, Wilson paints a picture of black life rich with unique characters and important literary themes. The entire ten-play cycle is worth experiencing whenever possible.
Of course, there are many more playwrights and plays of note, from Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Ruined to Dani Gurira’s Eclipsed. Robert O’Hara, Dominique Morisseau, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who recently won an Oscar for the movie Moonlight, based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The point is not to catalogue the 10 or 20 playwrights of color worth noting, it is to marvel at the simple fact that in a short time, black culture has grown under challenging circumstances and continues to develop in new and interesting ways. As big as the hurdles have been for these playwrights to get produced, they have persisted and continue to illuminate the world from their unique perspective, which is probably the most American theater experience one could ask for.