Early Black Feminist Theatre and Lynching Dramas Revisited

Daughters of Lorraine Podcast Episode #2

Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley…

Jordan Ealy: … and Jordan Ealey.

On this podcast, we will discuss Black theatre history, conduct interviews with Black theatre artists and practitioners, and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing. You don’t want to miss this, so stay tuned.

[Interlude]

In fact, the lynching dramatists refused to recreate lynchings on stage, choosing instead to depict the Black home and the resulting damage that lynchings had on Black domesticity and Black social life.

two actors onstage

Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimke at Finborough Theatre. Photo by Colin Ince.

Leticia: Today in our first Black theatre history episode, we are so excited to dive into the history of anti-lynching dramas, a genre of theatre created by Black women playwrights. The form is dedicated to social justice and community practice and set a precedent for the power of theatre to transform and inspire.

Jordan: Let’s set the stage here. It’s turn of the century. We are post-emancipation and though the formalized institution of slavery is abolished, Black people in the United States are still facing the threat of white violence. Lynching victims were often accused of murder or rape, which was really just a smoke screen for Black people who allegedly Jim Crow laws or attempted to compete economically with white residents. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 4,084 Black people were lynched during 1877 to 1950 in the South. As the high numbers of victims demonstrate, lynching was a fact of Black life in the South and Black communities were hyper-aware of their proximity to white supremacist violence.

Leticia: Simultaneously, Black folks were organizing in an attempt to persuade the government to intervene in this epidemic of lynching. A prominent figure of anti-lynching organizing was activist and investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, who would publish her groundbreaking research in 1892 in a pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases, which challenged the alleged reason that Black men were getting lynch because of the rape of white women. Instead, Wells cited Black economic progress as the “real reason” for lynching. Three years later, she followed up Southern Horrors with a 100-page pamphlet describing the high rates of lynching in the United States. Following in the activism of Ida B. Wells, theatre that addressed this horrific epidemic emerged in Washington D.C., taking theatre to a new realm. In the tradition of earlier playwrights such as William Wells Brown, who utilized his play The Escape, or, A Leap For Freedom for abolitionist ends, anti-lynching dramas intended to enact social change and improve the material conditions for Black folk everywhere.

Jordan: In the 1910s and 1920s, a number of African American women poets and authors turned to drama to address racial violence. Writers such as: Angelina Weld Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Mary Burrill, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Myrtle Smith Livingston were among these writers who did so. With the majority of these Black women living in the heart of Washington, D.C. they were constantly confronted with symbols of democracy that they found their lived realities falling outside of. These women contributed to the genre now known as lynching dramas. While the name “lynching dramas” might suggest the presence of Black violence, these dramatic depictions did not attempt to recreate the lynching. Instead, it focused on the “threat or occurrence of a lynching” as theatre historians Kathy Perkins and Judith Stephens note. In fact, the lynching dramatists refused to recreate lynchings on stage, choosing instead to depict the Black home and the resulting damage that lynchings had on Black domesticity and Black social life.

Leticia: This functioned to illustrate the ways that lynching seeped into other spaces that were believed to be safe from anti-Black violence such as homes, schools, and churches (Stephens 8). Scholar Koritha Mitchell expands on this point by emphasizing that these dramas redirected the conversation away from an individual or a body and emphasized the impact on the family and community (222). Lynching dramas also served to affirm Black life; this is reflected in the community spaces they were performed such as churches and homes. These dramas, with the exception of a few, often did not receive full productions on stages but were read in community with other Black folks, in a practice that Koritha Mitchell calls “embodied practice of Black belonging.”

Jordan: Equally important to the content of the dramas was that this was a genre that created by Black women. Judith Stephens and Koritha Mitchell among other scholars situate lynching dramas within a Black feminist and womanist theatrical tradition. Black feminist scholar Lisa Anderson offers the idea of a Black feminist theatre aesthetic that is characterized as centering the politics of Black feminism, focuses on the lives of Black women, and critical of violence against women including by Black men, among other things. As scholars of Black feminist theory, we are particularly concerned with what lynching dramas offer to Black feminist and womanist theatrical praxis and how these playwrights use theatre to advocate for Black feminist politics.

Leticia: The dramatists who lived between 1890 and 1930 were flooded with depictions of anti-Black violence in their quotidian lives and the historical record really focuses on these realities. However, as Koritha Mitchell states, these dramatists were invested in providing their “communities’ with strategies for living with lynching.” We turn now to three pioneers of this important genre of theatre and the impact their plays continue to have.

Jordan: The first anti-lynching dramatist was Angelina Weld Grimké who was named after her abolitionist aunt. She was born to Archibald Grimké, the president of NAACP Washington unit and Sarah (Stanley) Grimké, a daughter of a pastor (Smith and Phelps 416). Grimké attended several prestigious schools and graduated in 1902 from Boston Normal School of Gymnastics and began teaching English in Washington, D.C. (ibid, 417).

More known for her poetry and short stories, Grimké penned the play Rachel, originally titled Blessed Be the Barren, in 1914 (Hull 117). In 1916, the NAACP’s drama committee sponsored a production of Rachel (ibid, 117). Growing up in a middle class neighborhood, Grimké was shielded from poor conditions, but not racial injustices, which had a direct influence on her choice to write Rachel (ibid, 417).

Leticia: While Rachel was written before DuBois and the NAACP drama committee's call for “race propaganda” to counteract the popularity of the film; Birth of A Nation. Rachel was chosen and given a semi-professional production in Washington, D.C. at the Normal School For Colored Girls in 1916 (Smith and Phelps 419), thus making it the first Black-authored, non musical drama to be performed by Black actors for a broad audience. Grimke’s Rachel is considered the first play that pioneered the anti-lynching genre. Rachel follows a young girl life through adulthood and how the inability to protect her future children from racism leads to her decision to not have children. As Josephine Lee argues, “Rachel shows how the home is violated by the evils of racism; the home offers no protection against lynching and economic disenfranchisement (628).

Rachel was produced to mixed reactions even within the NAACP who has sponsored the play. Some hailed the production for reaching an integrated audience by emotionally appealing to the similarities of whites and Blacks (Mitchell 10). Other responded negatively to Grimké‘s choices to highlight European culture elements, arguing that Grimké had written the play not for Black people but for whites. They also highlighted that Rachel was ‘committing race suicide’. Grimké responded to these critics in The Competitor magazine in 1920 in an essay titled “Reason” she proclaims, “The appeal is not primarily to the colored people, but the whites… My belief was, then, that if a vulnerable point in there could be found, if their hearts could be reached… I believe it to be motherhood… If, then, the white women of this country could see, feel, understand...” (52).

Many scholars alike have doubled down on considering Rachel a play for a white audience, but Jordan and I believe this is an overdetermination. Grimke’s drama, while it does appeal to white audiences, also speaks intra-racially. Rachel deals candidly with issues of colorism, specifically in the scene among the Lane family and Rachel Loving. It also speaks to the Black community’s gender issues, demonstrated in the relationship between Rachel and Strong. Finally, it reconfigures notions of motherhood as Rachel, though painfully, makes a decision about her own reproductive future not in denying motherhood but in electing, instead, to be a mother in other ways.

Jordan: We turn now to Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Dunbar-Nelson was extremely politically active, organizing for the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-Atlantic states and acting as field representative for the Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense in 1918. She also campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1924. She was also married to poet-playwright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and together they lived in LeDroit Park, which was a neighborhood of D.C.’s burgeoning Black middle class and hub for the Black intelligentsia of the early twentieth century.

Dunbar-Nelson’s play Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918), a one act anti-lynching drama, was published in the The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, in 1918. Mine Eyes Have Seen deals frankly with issues of citizenship and nationhood, questioning how Black folks can serve and protect a country that does not do the same. The play follows a Black family who had to flee their home in the South after the patriarch was lynched. According to Koritha Mitchell, Black success in Dunbar-Nelson’s drama was the reason for the lynching of the father who owns a business in town and was facing threats from the white residents to shut down. Dunbar-Nelson, with Mine Eyes Have Seen, establishes alternative reasons for Black death that challenges the dominant belief that Black people were getting lynched due to their connection to sexual and violent crimes. It works to corroborate Ida B. Wells’s pamphlets on lynching, functioning as a productive counter-narrative to racist propaganda.

Leticia: Our final playwright is Georgia Douglas Johnson, who was the most prolific lynching dramatist of her time. Johnson wrote approximately 28 dramas addressing both racial and non-racial themes on top of the many poems and short stories that she wrote in her lifetime. One of her most known lynching dramas was A Sunday Morning South a one act play that illustrates a family having breakfast before a lynch mob comes to take a way a teenage boy from his home. As early as 1925 she wrote to Howard University's Alain Locke requesting his opinion of her recently completed Blue Blood, which he felt confident enough to describe as "a mighty good play/'. In 1926 she submitted Blue Blood to the Urban League's Opportunity playwriting contest and won honorable mention; in 1927 her play Plumes was awarded the competition first prize. Between 1930 and 1935 Johnson submitted several plays to the newly organized Federal Theatre Project (FTP), and in 1938 she contributed her playwriting skills to the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign. By 1943 she had submitted her entire “book of plays” to the Wendell Malliet publishing company in New York, and her 1952 correspondence with Harlem Renaissance patron Harold Jackman reveals she continued to seek a publisher for her “book of plays.”

In addition to her artistic endeavors, Georgia Douglas Johnson believed that artistic community was important. She opened up her home in Washington, D.C. on Saturday’s night or what is now known as the S Street Salon. The Salon was a place where local artist and activist could talk about local and national issues, get feedback on their artistic work, and organize against politics. Frequent visitors to the S Street Salon were: W.E.B DuBois, Angelina Weld Grimke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Burrill, Alain Locke, to name a few. She was an exemplar in utilizing art as protest and, due to the community of the S Street Salon, set the stage for the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance.

Jordan: These Black women dramatists were invested in recording, creating and preserving alternative evidence about the anti-Black violence that shaped their lives without focusing on reproducing the images of Black death. Black theatre comes from a legacy of playwrights and artists using the stage to intervene in their social and political lives; for many, the stage was one of the places that they could talk about issues that were affecting their lives. So next time you think about the legacy of Black women in theatre, look a bit further than Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, or even Lorraine Hansberry. You might find those who fertilized the ground on which they stood. As Black theatre instructors, scholars, and artists, we are without a doubt indebted to their incredible work and will continue to use our own scholarship and practice to pay it forward.

Leticia: That concludes our episode. To learn more about lynching dramas, -we suggest the following books and articles which were instrumental in our research for this episode:

  • Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance and Citizenship, 1890-1930 by Koritha Mitchell
  • “Anti-Lynch Plays by African American Women: Race, Gender, and Social Protest in American Drama” by Judith L. Stephens
  • Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington D.C. by Treva Lindsey
  • Black Feminism in Contemporary Drama by Lisa Anderson.

This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine with Leticia Ridley...

Jordan: and Jordan Ealey. Next time, we will be covering August Wilson’s Jitney. You definitely won’t want to miss this.

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Hosted by two doctoral theatre students, Jordan Ealey and Leticia Ridley, Daughters' of Lorraine Podcast features reviews of Black theatre productions (mainly in the DC/Baltimore area), current national conversations around, within, and about Black theatre, academic discussions concerning Black theatre, recommendations on Black theatre scripts, and interviews with Black theatre artists. This podcast centers and privileges the narratives of Black theatremakers, scholars, and audiences while also underscoring the need for understanding the influence of Black theatre on the American theatre landscape.

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