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  • Black Voices, White Bodies: The Performance of Race and Gender in How Long Brethren
  • Susan Manning (bio)

Women standing by their men, supporting their men’s efforts to effect reform, never claiming their own rights: this is the dominant image of womanhood that Barbara Melosh discerns in plays staged by the Federal Theatre Project from 1935 to 1939. In her comprehensive study, Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater, Melosh argues that the Federal Theatre Project participated in the containment of feminism evident in New Deal liberalism. Although she cites the plays’ celebration of domesticity as a specifically female form of activist citizenship, she argues that this idealization of domesticity “precluded any acknowledgment of the conditions that restricted women’s full participation” in the public sphere. Melosh concludes that the Federal Theatre “cast women in revised roles but retained them as supporting players in male narratives of work and politics.” 1

However aptly Melosh reads the dramatic productions staged by the Federal Theatre Project, her analysis does not extend to the choreographic productions patronized by the project under the auspices of the Federal Dance Theatre. Instituted after modern dancers had protested their absence from the theatre project, the Federal Dance Theatre was an even shorter-lived venture than its parent organization. As an autonomous unit, the Federal Dance Theatre existed less than two years, from January 1936 to October 1937, when budget cuts dismantled its administrative structure and reabsorbed its personnel into [End Page 24] the Federal Theatre as a whole. 2 Yet during that brief period—and during the brief period thereafter when modern dancers continued to mount works for the project—the dance stage of the Federal Theatre rarely showed a woman standing by her man. Rather, the imagery of 1930s modern dance predominated—images of women figuring the diversity of American life, commenting on social issues, protesting injustices onstage and offstage. If Barbara Melosh cannot find feminism within New Deal theatre, it is perhaps because she overlooks the choreographic productions staged by the mostly female dancers and choreographers associated with the project—among them, Doris Humphrey, Katherine Dunham, and Helen Tamiris.

The undisputed hit of the Federal Dance Theatre was Helen Tamiris’s How Long Brethren. Premiered in May 1937, the work enjoyed more critical acclaim and a longer run than any other production sponsored by the Federal Dance Theatre in New York City. 3 In Dance Observer, an organ of the modern dance movement, Henry Gilfond called How Long Brethren “one of the most exciting compositions of this or any season.” 4 The reviewer for New Masses agreed and described “a new and enthusiastic audience—not strictly a dance audience, but, on the contrary, people who have never seen in dance anything but incomprehensible gesture.” 5 Since tickets for all Federal Theatre productions were discounted, the audience for How Long Brethren was more diverse than were audiences for modern dance productions outside the Federal Theatre—typically single performances or short runs aimed at spectators already initiated into the modern dance movement. 6

Thus How Long Brethren presented images of women familiar to devotees of modern dance since the early 1930s but unfamiliar to the larger public. Within and without the Federal Theatre, spectators were accustomed to seeing images of women in relation to men—whether an eroticized object of desire, a participant in heterosexual romance, or even a partner in the “comradely ideal” Melosh discerns in so many Federal Theatre plays. In contrast, the modern dance stage rarely defined women in relation to men; rather, the modern dance stage dramatized encounters between a (usually female) choreographer-dancer and an (often all-female) ensemble. In works cast only for women, the female body became a vehicle for choreographic metaphors of social process. Such works, including How Long Brethren, were feminist in the sense of challenging a centuries-old representational convention that makes man the measure of all things. In 1930s [End Page 25] modern dance a collective of women—white women, that is—became the universal subject. 7

Tamiris, a committed leftist, set How Long Brethren to African American work songs taken from a recently published anthology by Lawrence Gellert titled Negro...

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