- Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890–1930 by Koritha Mitchell
The title of Koritha Mitchell’s insightful and well-researched book invites the reader to imagine something that the book does not address: the theatrical representation of lynching, the hanging body onstage. The noticeable [End Page 137] absence of this spectacle from Living with Lynching is easy to explain. African American playwrights, who are the subjects of this study, have little interest in recreating the terroristic function of lynching imagery and, as Mitchell convincingly notes, likely did not want such representations to “trump testimony from victimized communities” (6). Rather than centre on the visually horrific, the book centres on the dramatic staging of quieter and longer-lasting effects, the traumatic ripple that illegal and rarely prosecuted murders of black men and women had for black families and their communities.
By “lynching plays,” Mitchell refers to domestic dramas, living room or parlour plays, that were written between 1914 and 1930 and in which black characters gather and talk about the events in their lives. What unites the plays – which include Angela Weld Grimké’s Rachel, Mary Burrill’s Aftermath, and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Safe, among others – is the fact that lynching exists in the background and creates a pall in the room, and this, in turn, affects conversations, becoming, in the process, an unseen presence in the dramatic world of the characters. These dramas “capture the community’s understanding of the spiritual, financial, and psychological damage done” by lynching (61).
A striking feature of the domestic dramas analysed by Mitchell is that they were rarely produced professionally and usually circulated as literature, published in magazines. The connection between the real and fictional worlds was strengthened by the fact that the plays were written or otherwise distributed during the period in which lynchings frequently occurred within American society. The play readers, like the characters within the dramas, lived with lynching. One of the more compelling claims of the book is the author’s assertion that lynching plays, as literature, were embodied by readers who performed roles and discussed the play’s subject matter. Mitchell asserts, “[W]e can imagine families in which each member read or memorized a part in a one-act play” (40). She adds, “The plays’ appearance in magazines provided impetus for conversations within families and communities” (57). Although the author does not evidence these claims, it is conceivable that a person could have felt prompted to read a published play aloud or even to recruit friends and family to recreate it. Regardless of whether these plays were read aloud or silently, they, as do all plays, prompted the reader to imagine their staging – or even to stage them in the imagination.
Mitchell divides her book into two parts. Part One chronicles the “conventions of black theater that led African Americans to begin privileging playwriting over acting by the early 1900s” (17). The second part investigates “the culturally affirming tendencies that were reflected and encouraged as lynching scripts proliferated and the genre developed, most through one-acts and periodical culture” (17). [End Page 138]
In Part One, Mitchell offers an overview of late-nineteenth-century black performance culture, addresses how the format of black musicals was insufficient to revise stereotypes and caricatures of black folk, and introduces “black critics’ call for a drama of their own ...a call for written texts” (51) in the early twentieth century. The author contends that only drama, relative to the other expressive arts, was capable of articulating black social and political reality. She notes, “Black writers living at the turn of the century could not be content to use fiction, essays, or poetry; the historical moment demanded a dramatic response” (60). Answering the call, playwrights participated in writers’ salons and formed artistic collectives. The domestic dramas, including lynching plays, that they created were “developed through periodical culture and through the conversations and debates that this culture sustained in literary salons, churches, barbershops, and beauty parlors” (58...