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American Women Playwrights (July 2022): African American Women Playwrights

By Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

African American Women Playwrights

There is a sizable—and strong—body of literature devoted to African American women playwrights, literature that predates the current emphasis on BIPOC writers that Rebeck alludes to in her New York Times essay. David Krasner’s two-volume set, Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895-1910 and A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre Drama and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927, provides the larger context of African American theater from 1895 through 1927 in which women writers, including Angelina Weld Grimké, Hurston, and Johnson, and the choreographic performances of Aida Overton Walker and Ethel Waters, flourished.

Carol Allen’s Peculiar Passages: Black Women Playwrights, 1875 to 2000 is notable particularly for the detailed information on the plays of Pauline Hopkins, including the musical The Underground Railroad (1879), which Allen contend introduced a “new dramatic form that embraces the attitudes of a newly freed and forward-thinking country that is ardent about welcoming its black citizens” (p. 31). There also are chapters devoted to Grimké, Childress, Adrienne Kennedy, and Ntozake Shange. Hopkins is also discussed by Carol Marsh-Lockett in Black Women Playwrights: Visions on the American Stage, in which she argues that Hopkins subverted the racist ideology of the minstrel show tradition in her successful musical play. Marsh-Lockett organizes her essays in two broad categories: the first explores how playwrights dealt with external realities of African American life through their art; the second considers issues of African American female identity and selfhood in the plays.

Christy Gavin contributes a bio-bibliography of ten writers in African American Women Playwrights: A Research Guide. Six of the women date to the Harlem Renaissance—Bonner, Mary Burrill, Grimké, Hurston, Johnson, and Miller; the other four—Childress, Hansberry, Kennedy, and Shange—began their careers post-World War II. Each author profile comprises a brief biography, a list of plays and production information, plot summaries of major plays, short playscripts, and an annotated bibliography of profiles, interviews, and general criticism. Contemporary African American Women Playwrights: A Casebook, edited by Philip Kolin, opens with an essay on the principal Black playwrights in the canon—Hansberry, Hurston, Bonner, and Johnson—followed by essays on Childress, Sonia Sanchez, Kennedy, Shange, Pearl Cleage, Aishah Rahman, Glenda Dickerson, Smith, Parks, and Nottage. In African American Women Playwrights Confront Violence, Patricia Young offers a gender-focused analysis of the social protest plays of nine playwrights—Dunbar-Nelson, Grimké, Burrill, Johnson, Myrtle Smith Livingston, Childress, Sandra Cecelia Browne Seaton, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, and Michon Boston. Young looks first at the playwrights and then at their work in chapters devoted to lynching, miscegenation, the judicial system, activist-journalist Ida B. Wells, and patriotism.

La Donna Forsgren’s Sistuhs in the Struggle: An Oral History of Black Arts Movement Theater and Performance provides a fascinating portrait of notable women of the Black Arts Movement (1965 to the late 1970s). Forsgren compiled the book from oral histories of 18 women, including Shange, Micki Grant, Halifu Osumare, Kathy A. Perkins, Shirley Prendergast, J. E. Franklin, Doris Derby, and Sonia Sanchez, who shaped a black aesthetic through writing, performance, activism, and community-building in the mid-20th century. The “sistuhs” were all Black women intellectuals who, as professional writers, artists, and administrators, combated sexism and institutional racism in the United States and sexism in their own artistic communities, and forged distinctively Black art that was integrally linked to civil rights and the burgeoning Black Power movement. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory’s Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, offers thirteen plays by nine playwrights, with biographical notes, a synopsis, and analysis for each play. Authors include Bonner, Johnson, Spence, Miller, Graham, Childress, Sanchez, Sybil Kein, and Brown-Guillory. Finally, Kathy Perkins’s Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays before 1950 (1989) includes short plays of Johnson, Burrill, Graham, Hurston, Spence, Miller, and Bonner.

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