The Negro and the Theatre A Glance at the Past and a Prophecy
Edith J. R. IsaacsPublishing Information
Ridgely Torrence's plays, The Rider of Dreams, Granny Maumee, and Simon the Cyrenian, were (and still are, though they are too seldom played) fine, fresh, rich theatre material presented by a director with imagination, and also with enough determination and enough technical skill to put to good dramatic use every particle of the talent in a group of Negro actors in whom talent fairly overflowed into performance. The difference between having a natural gift for acting and being able to put those gifts at the service of a play by 'knowing how' (which is sometimes called 'acquiring a technique') was never more in evidence than in this production. Most of those Negro players, even those who could create a character with a few sure, sharp lines, did not know the theatre- not as white actors know it, from before as well as behind the footlights, from watching plays grow in rehearsal and from seeing them performed before an audience. At least they did not seem to know the hard laws of concentration, economy, connection, that mark the professional actor, the qualities that turn a group of well-trained individual players into an acting ensemble, a 'company'.
It seemed equally clear that this theatre did not know its Negro players and was seeing afresh-if not for the first time-what acting might be that was untrammeled by conventions belonging to an outworn theatre tradition, acting that united a flexible body and an expressive voice with the assumption that a theatre was not only a place for speech and scenery but for movement, music and the dance.
The audience in the spacious parquet of that old playhouse was solidly white except for a few Negro friends that we had bullied the house manager into permitting us to have as guests in our boxes. That audience was not particularly interested in race relationships or in the advancement of the colored people; it was interested in art, and especially in the art of the theatre, as a medium for saying clearly and vividly things that were worth saying because they were good and true and beautiful. It was distinctly a theatre audience, concerned with Ridgely Torrence's gift as a poetic playwright, with the way in which the director employed to interpret his plays, and the actors employed to portray his characters, were doing their job, and first of all with the pleasure that came from seeing good plays well done. But, somehow or other, the thing that shone most clearly through the entire performance, the fact that came sharply across the footlights, was that the American theatre and the American Negro had a world of good things to place at each other's service if the road between them could be cleared. And that these things, rightly used, would enrich not only the theatre, but the whole of life.
About that time, the same thing came to me even more forcefully, not from the actor's but from the playwright's angle. The editors of Theatre Arts, just starting New York publication with more eagerness than money, divided the work of magazine making between them. To me was left the task, among others, of reading all the play manuscripts that were submitted. I went gaily at the job in the innocent belief that good manuscripts by unknown playwrights would be fumed up every third or fourth day. Nothing like that ever happened-not every fourth day or fortieth. But among every hundred manuscripts there would be one or two that would show some promise, hold out some hope of dramatic accomplishment, and to the authors of these scripts (having more time than now) I made a point of writing to say what were the qualities that had commanded attention and what the lacks and limitations that made the play unavailable for publication or performance.
The work of two men came in with fair regularity, both bearing southern postmarks. Both used Negro material skillfully; both showed a keen sense of what made a situation dramatic; both knew Negro life in the South, the rhythm of rural Negro speech, the heart of comedy and tragedy. At the beginning, both playwrights had pretty much the same faults; their characters did not develop through a play; the first scenes were usually the best, with little later progress in action or idea. One man's work grew better, play by play; the other remained almost static.
I had no hint of who either man was until one day Paul Green was announced as a visitor to my office. That was the name of the playwright whose work was coming on. A year later I heard that the other man was a Negro. His plays were little better when he stopped sending them to me than they were when he began. The reason forth is seemed to me to be clear enough, when I looked back toward the white audience for From the Ridgely Torrence's Plays for a Negro Theatre a theatre in which the Negro himself was a stranger.
Paul Green had the Playmakers' Theatre at the University of North Carolina to work in. He could watch his plays in rehearsal and performance; he could watch his friends' plays grow, and exchange criticism and suggestion with them. But a young Negro playwright would find it hard to see a fine professional theatre, or an active experimental theatre, at work. And, the theatre being a complex and composite art, no man, black or white, however talented, could create a theatre out of loneliness and inexperience. A poem, yes, or a picture; but not a play.
Along the line of time that stretches between those days and this day of ours, there are a hundred glowing memories-of Charles S. Gilpin in The Emperor Jones, of Paul Robeson in All God's Chillun, of Frank Wilson in Porgy, of Frank Wilson again and Rose McClendon in In Abraham's Bosom, of Rose McClendon, in black silk, coming down the stairs of that fine old southern house in Deep River; of Florence Mills dancing her way to the edge of the theatre's best gifts and dying so young; of Bill Robinson tapping out his endlessly beautiful rhythms; of the cast who made the success of Four Saints in Three Acts, and of an increasing number of other Negro players, singers, dancers, more and more each year, adding their increasing skill to the wealth of the theatre they serve and that is learning to serve them At the end of the line, like a splendid monument, is the memory of Richard Harrison, de Lawd, who carried his message of mercy and humility-by way of the theatre-through three hundred cities of the North and the South.
And along a parallel in time with these achievements of the Negro actor as an artist in the professional theatre, stretches another line of memories-far less important as art, far more important, perhaps, for what they mean to the future of the American theatre and the future of Negro life in America. These are related to Negro Community Theatres and educational dramatic groups, often short-lived like their white fellows; to the plays that were written for Opportunity contests; to such organizations as the Krigwa Players, the Kanawha Players and the Gilpin Players; to the pioneering at Howard University; to the splendid beginnings made at Spelman College and other colleges; to the record made by Negro groups in the Carolina Dramatic Association Festivals; and finally, to the formation of the Negro Intercollegiate Dramatic Association. What gives all of these groups their importance-their aesthetic and their social value-is not what they are (or what they were, those that are gone) but what the theatre was and is and can be to them.
At every high point in its history the theatre has called to its service not only the actor, the playwright, the director that are its own immediate needs, but the painter, the architect and the poet. In other words the theatre, in every expressive age, is the focus of the arts. That is what makes a completely fine work of theatre art so difficult a thing. The creative artist is innately an individualist, but the theatre demands of him co-operative service in a common cause. A really great play is greater than the playwright who conceives it or the actors who perform it. It is not only a work of art but a social work as well. And just this is, in turn, what makes so difficult a thing worth while to the theatre artist and to the theatre audience: the fact that the theatre represents not one good end, but three. It is, first, an artistic expression, as a painting is, or a poem, or a cathedral. It is, second, an active force in the social and educational life of its time, not only a mirror of its day but a record of great days, long past, that have left their mark upon the present, and a prophecy of the future toward which the present marches. And, third, it is a personal release, both for the artist who takes part in the production and for the audience that watches it.
The theatre reaches down into community and national life and picks up the forces there that have most meaning. It reaches up into hope and lights the clearest beacons. It reaches out its hands to every man and offers him enjoyment, entertainment, release or exaltation.
It is all of these powers which the theatre- at its best-can exert, that give importance to every small experimental effort in the direction of making the Negro more at home in the American theatre as artist and as audience, making him at home in the orchestra chair, in the music pit, on the stage, at the switchboard, in the workshop. How far, on this communal side, the Negroes had gone in the last twenty years came as a great surprise at this last visit to Howard University, in spite of all that I had heard and that I knew of what was happening.
In the New York professional theatre we are still busy talking of a scheme which shall have the double purpose of giving professional actors and other theatre workers employment again, and of tying neighboring communities more closely together. The scheme is called 'rotary stock' and consists of having companies in four or five separate towns, each company producing a play in the home town and then carrying it around the circuit. The Negro Intercollegiate Dramatic Association is already actually doing that job within a limited range. We are still busy talking of organizing a theatre audience, interesting people in performance by creating some bond of union between the stage and the auditorium. In that large audience at Howard, with every seat taken, with the interest and attention keen, responsive, awake, critical, the job is already done. All of the young people who go out of these college dramatic associations will remain forever at home in the theatre. From them will come, must come, not only the Negro playwrights and actors who will enrich the American theatre of the next generation, and not only a new theatre audience, but new leaders in communal life who will have learned first to express themselves, and then to understand their neighbors better, by what they did and what they saw done in the theatre.
There is no use saying that the program of the tournament at Howard indicated that the work was all done. As far as playwriting is concerned, it is only begun-but begun with the right spirit, at the right end, with the audience and the workshop.
I am bound to say that I have never yet read a play of Negro life written by a Negro-nor, for that matter, any play written by a Negro- that even approached first-rate quality; nothing, for example, that can be compared with the singing of Roland Hayes, or with the poetry of Sterling Brown. And I do not expect to- for another ten years. Such plays, unless they are the work of sheer genius, will come slowly out of long theatre association added to experience and good, hard training in the stern craft of the dramatist.
The chief faults of the acting at the Negro Intercollegiate Drama Association Tournament were about the same as in any average college performance: overstatement, a lack of co-ordination between idea and movement, between voice and gesture, between the character and the word. The direction--some of it good--suggested chiefly a lack of experience in the simplest and best methods of getting secure performances from individual amateur actors and then tying them together. But if the faults were those common to most amateur performances, the virtues seemed to me outstanding. There were single characterizations of difficult parts-small parts, chiefly-that were imaginatively conceived and creatively performed. There was far less than usual of the obvious and conventional in movement, the great fault of so many amateur players who have seen too many plays and who, therefore, imitate instead of creating. There was, above all, no indication of the chief fault which dulls so many theatre performances, both professional and amateur- the desire to make the theatre like life. All of these young players seemed to know the only thing you need to know fully to understand the theatre; what the great German poet-dramatist, Cristian Friedrich Hebbel, once said, better than anyone will say it again: 'The theatre is the only possible pause in a man's life.' It is great and useful and creative, not by those qualities that make it real, but by the qualities that heighten reality into art, lift it out of life, place it outside the ordinary bounds of living.