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.

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