Book Review, Vol. 30 No. 2

Stages of Struggle and Celebration: A Production History of Black Theatre in Texas

Stages of Struggle and Celebration: A Production History of Black Theatre in TexasSandra M. Mayo and Elvin Holt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016; Pp. 341.

The history of black theatre in the United States tends to be analyzed as a product of the coasts, from New York City during the Harlem Renaissance to San Francisco during the Black Arts Movement. In the twenty-first century, we continue to look to Broadway and off-Broadway as significant sites for study, yet the development of black theatre runs throughout the US. Stages of Struggle and Celebration: A Production History of Black Theatre in Texas by Sandra M. Mayo and Elvin Holt turns the spotlight on the state of Texas and its remarkable history of community theatre, from small amateur groups to professional theatre companies. The book provides a historical overview of black-run companies in five cities: San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, complete with a chronological list of productions for each company in each year of its existence. Most of these theatres have all-black administrators and produce mainly—though not exclusively—plays by black playwrights from throughout the African diaspora. Mayo and Holt emphasize that the book is “a people’s story” (xii) that honors and builds upon the work and scholarship of others, including James Hatch, Erroll Hill, Samuel Hay, and Leslie Sanders, even as it provides new insights.

Holt and Mayo begin by noting a gap in scholarship in both general black theatre historiography and the study of the black experience in Texas. Before turning to parallels between the growth of black theatre in Texas and in the country at large, the authors carefully explain black theatre aesthetics and influences. Black theatre in Texas presents a significant challenge to the narrative of Texas’s own cultural identity, which is dominated by violent stories featuring white male heroes, often to the exclusion of minoritized people. Thus, Mayo and Holt create space for a new narrative, one that places black artists at the center of the cultural development of Texas. In Stages of Struggle and Celebration, the existence of these highly professional and successful black companies proves the significance of their work. The text also uncovers the close, fruitful relationships between black theatres and the black church, and between black theatres and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Texas.

Part I of the book establishes the theoretical framework of black theatre, providing a helpful overview of the debates as to what “black theatre” actually is. Beginning with W. E. B. Du Bois’s “criteria for Negro theatre,” Mayo and Holt trace the debate through the scholarship of Paul Carter  Harrison and Mikell Pinkney, and the aesthetic theories of August Wilson. The afterword pulls together theory and praxis, evaluating the book’s research and history through the lens of the five questions: who, what, where, when, and why. These sections are beneficial for any reader unfamiliar with the history of black theatre, dating back to the Jim Crow era and moving toward the present day.

Part II contains one chapter about each of five major cities in Texas using specific companies to represent the history of black theatre in each area. In the preface, the authors acknowledge that the availability of archival materials and other research sites vary widely by city and individual company. This means that in each chapter, some of the write-ups are much shorter than others, due to the disorganized nature of most of the companies’ archives. Yet the authors make the most of what they have, including detailed performance histories, racial/ethnic demographic information of each city, and, in some cases, frank analysis of problems that affected companies and their ability to stay productive. Examined side by side, these companies share many striking similarities. Plays such as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta are performed regularly. The section concludes with a list of plays by African-American Texans.

Chapter one focuses on San Antonio and offers the most interesting history of the entire book due to the longevity and variety of institutions in this city. Theatre began here earlier than in most other cities, at the turn of the twentieth century. Today, several companies, including the nearly 100-year-old Carver Community Cultural Center and the Hornsby Entertainment Theatre Company produce full seasons of theatre, sometimes in collaboration with local churches or other arts foundations.

Chapter two explores black theatre in Austin, the only city in the book that does not currently have an active black theatre. The most recent company, Progressive Arts Collective, saw its founder pass away in 2005, and then it closed in 2012. Holt and Mayo use this example to unpack some inherent difficulties in sustaining a black regional theatre without regular funding and public support. When a theatre company runs almost entirely on volunteer power, it remains on the precarious edge between survival and failure.

Dallas emerges as the city with the most theatrical companies as well as the largest population of African Americans. Chapter three covers two currently active companies in depth, the African American Repertory Theatre (AART) and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters (TBAAL), which is most famous for its collaborations with Tyler Perry. Perry began working with TBAAL in the late 1990s and developed several of his characters and scripts there that would later appear in his feature films.

Chapters four and five cover Fort Worth and Houston, respectively. Fort Worth contains just two companies, allowing the authors to discuss thoroughly the Jubilee Theatre, which continues to produce work. In Houston, the authors uncover the Thespian Society for “Cullud Genman,” likely a minstrel troupe from the 1860s, but focus mainly on two currently operating companies, the Ensemble Theatre and the Encore Theatre.

Stages of Struggle and Celebration is not a critique of persons involved in running the companies, or an evaluation of the companies’ productions, although the authors do analyze why certain companies failed to maintain funding and include some media reviews where available. Instead, this text is a chronological, mainly favorable rundown of the important work done by black theatre companies in Texas. This is a book for students and scholars to use as a starting point for further research.

Sharyn Emery
Indiana University Southeast

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 30, Number 2 (Spring 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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