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Reviewed by:
  • Historical Dictionary of African American Theatre
  • James V. Hatch
Anthony D. Hill. Historical Dictionary of African American Theatre. Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow P, 2009. 624 pp. $115.00.

In the early 1970s, Scarecrow Press published in two volumes the essential Black American Writers Past and Present. That same press, now a subsidiary of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, United Kingdom, has become a leader with a series of thirty theater and cinema historical dictionaries whose subjects include Chinese Theatre, Indian Cinema, Lesbian Literature, Australian Radio and Television, etc.

This year they have added A Historical Dictionary of African American Theatre. Series editor Jon Woronoff writes in his foreword that African American theater does not have a very long history, and this book "does not have everything but it certainly has more than can be found anywhere else with the insight of insiders" (ix-x). The two "insiders" are Anthony D. Hill, associate professor of theatre, Ohio State University, and Douglas Q. Barnett, founder of the seminal Black Arts/West, a 1960s production group in Seattle, where both men had theater roots that enabled them to give careful attention to black theater on the West Coast, attention previously neglected in other chronologies. "Historical" is the word that catches the essence of this encyclopedic dictionary that follows a format used by Don Wilmeth, editor of the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre (2007).

The Hill/Barnett Dictionary has several helpful features up front: three and a quarter pages are given over to acronyms and abbreviations for readers who may not know that the NBTC is the National Black Touring Circuit, or that the OET is the Oakland Ensemble Theatre. This is followed by a chronology beginning in the seventeenth century and ending in 2008 with the death of Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre. The editors have also included a forty-four page listing of major theatrical events. All of these are useful in navigating the complexities of black theater's past.

This dictionary supplies a wealth of data not always accessible to scholars. Hill and Barnett have assembled more than 600 entries for playwrights, actors, theater-producing organizations, directors, plays, musicals, and historical themes. Bios of major artists, such as George C. Wolfe, not only contain the list of plays written or directed, but cross-references to other theater artists with whom he has worked. Especially useful are the inclusions of experimental playwrights, dramaturges, and directors such as Talvin Wilks and Edgar White. Included also is an impressive number of Caucasian, Hispanic, Caribbean, and African talents as scholars who promoted African American theater over its roughly 200 years: for example, Miguel Piñero, Freddie Kissoon, and Joseph Papp are all listed. Omitted are Jasper Deeter of Hedgerow Theatre and E.C. Maybe of Iowa University Theatre, who should be added in the next edition.

Speaking of omissions, the computer has eaten part of the entry for Howard University theatre professor Anne M. Cooke, known to her students as "Queen Anne." Her first paragraph is in place and correct, but her second paragraph belongs to a rival, perhaps the original first queen of black theater, Henrietta Vinton Davis, whom Errol Hill named as the premier of all the nineteenth-century black stage actors. Davis herself has no entry. Nonetheless, it is satisfying to find the names of the rest of black theatre's royalty listed among the major theatre awards: Audelco, Drama Desk, Obies (for off-Broadway performances), Tonys, Pulitzers, and so forth. All in all, this dictionary is a splendid piece of work and it belongs in every university and college library.

Finally, each time we pick up the Historical Dictionary of African American Theatre, it offers us a magical moment, for on the cover, in color, are Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee from the original 1959 version of A Raisin in the Sun. Dee, who was thirty-four at that time, looks nineteen and not a day older. [End Page 199]

James V. Hatch
City University of New York, Emeritus


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