Book Review, Vol. 31 No. 2

The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era. Jonathan Shandell. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018; Pp. 213 + xii.

Jonathan Shandell’s The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era offers in-depth, historical reconstruction of the instrumental role that Harlem’s American Negro Theatre (ANT) company played in the development of African American theatre and performance. Formed in June 1940, ANT provided African Americans with the autonomy for culturally distinct artistic expression. During the nascency of the Civil Rights Movement, ANT’s mission entailed opening a platform for “creative dialogues with whites” and fostering white support for the struggle for equality (2). Shandell meticulously documents ANT’s productions and artists using various archival materials, including play scripts, newspapers, and interviews. Shandell focuses on not only ANT’s more popular productions and artists but also more obscure, forgotten projects, and he rigorously situates his analyses within the historical and political context of the United States.

Following a short introduction in which Shandell neatly situates ANT between the New Negro Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, the first chapter provides an overview of ANT’s formation and first show in the Harlem Library’s basement, its launch of the American Negro Theatre School of Drama in the mid-1940s, and its financial and institutional crisis beginning in 1945 until its collapse in 1950. Chapter two looks at three dramatic works by black playwrights: On Strivers Row (1940) by Abram Hill, Natural Man (1936) by Theodore Browne, and Garden of Time (1945) by Owen Dodson. According to Shandell, the adoption of white artistic traditions for the telling of black stories, from the Moliére style social comedy mocking black upper-class snobbery (On Strivers Row) to the expressionist struggle of the individual in the folktale of John Henry (Natural Man) and the adaptation of Medea that takes place in the South (Garden of Time), reveals ANT’s propensity for artistic experimentation and redefining “Euro-American traditions [without] total submission to them” (68). The next chapter narrates the history of the 1945 domestic tragedy Anna Lucasta and the play’s attempt to change the stereotypical conception of African American characters integral in the “American cultural imagination” (89). Originally a play about the struggles of a Polish immigrant family during the Great Depression, ANT’s adaptation made no allusions to African American culture. Performed by an all-black cast, the show appealed to black and white audiences and transferred to Broadway, where ANT then lost artistic control over the show and had financial disputes that later led to the company’s downfall.

In the second half of the book, Shandell shifts the focus from ANT’s productions to its artist members. The fourth chapter recounts the life and work of actor-labor activist Frederick O’Neal, ANT’s cofounder. O’Neal worked to reform the white dominated stage for African American artists, but radical anti-racists criticized his moderate views and approaches in dealing with the struggle for racial justice and believing in “incremental change” (94). In 1960, he became president of Actors’ Equity’s Committee on Integration. Chapter five looks at the work of actress and dramatist Alice Childress, who costarred with O’Neal in Anna Lucasta. The child of a formerly enslaved person and German sailor, Childress was frustrated with racist and sexist discrimination in the mainstream theatre. Tired of being considered either too light or too dark for available roles, she began to write her own plays, “which she could populate with more complex, nuanced, and sympathetically drawn roles . . . particularly for African American women” (112). Focusing on her interracial plays of the 1950s and 1960s, Shandell reinterprets her works as forms of protest against racism that demonstrated the conviction that interracial alliances were necessary tools in the fight for equality. In chapter six, Shandell moves from theatre to film in a discussion of the most commercially successful actor to come out of ANT, Sidney Poitier. Examining two of the actor’s early films, No Way Out (1950) and Cry the Beloved Country (1951), Shandell argues that although both films foreshadow Poitier’s later character type of the ebony saint—a variation on the noble savage type for which he was harshly condemned by the African American community—Poitier’s character represents an important mediator between “liberal integrationist hopes and undeniable black frustrations” (153).

In the fascinating concluding chapter, Shandell examines the legacy of ANT. The Buck and the Preacher (1972), a western genre film, applies the ANT tactic of redefinition, offering a view of the Wild West where the frontier hero is black and the villain is white. Shandell asserts that The Cosby Show of the 1980s “disrupted the . . . pervasive and distasteful history of caricatured representations of black characters and families” (169) by depicting “an African American well-to-do upper-middle-class family unit” (165). However, The Cosby Show never addressed the “blackness of its characters” who are “unaffected by the material consequences of racism in the United States” (165). Turning his attention to the Classical Theatre of Harlem, he acknowledges the problem of the dominance of the Euro American canon within its repertoire. Nonetheless, Shandell notes that the redeeming qualities of the company lie in the expansion of that repertoire to include canonical black playwrights, use of a predominantly black cast and crew in all productions, and more recently, community outreach efforts, such as the free Uptown Shakespeare performances at Marcus Garvey Park.

This short yet comprehensive history of ANT, its key members, and their work is the first of its kind and is long overdue. Shandell’s examination of the available archival material is meticulous, and the noteworthy case studies point to how racial inequality still pervades contemporary American society. His book joins other recently published histories of black American theatre companies such as Penumbra: The Premier Stage for African American Drama by Macelle Mahala and Stages of Struggle and Celebration. A Production History of Black Theatre in Texas by Sandra M. Mayo and Elvin Holt. Scholars of African American theatre and performance, especially those whose area of focus lies within the short but significant timespan of ANT’s activities, will find Shandell’s study a crucial resource for an often overlooked but historically important institution in American theatre history.

Jennie Youssef
The CUNY Graduate Center

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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