- The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre ed. by Harvey Young
Like other editions of the Cambridge Companions to Literature series, The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre provides teachers in higher education with scholarly essays primarily designed for classroom use. Editor Harvey Young has assembled a notable group of established and emerging scholars from the fields of theatre and performance studies to craft an anthology that should grace the bookshelves of most theatre educators. The authors write in a clear, accessible language that invites students to participate in complex dialogues surrounding the histories of African American theatre and social constructions of race on the American stage. Young’s introduction asserts the collection’s objective to chronicle “the struggle to create a uniquely African American theatre.” Starting with the nineteenth-century slave trade and ending with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s spectatorship on Broadway, the anthology draws focus upon individuals whose artistic careers have fostered progress within and confronted violence against African American communities and given significant shape to the literature, practices, and conventions of the US theatre. As a whole, the publication locates African American theatre as American theatre, making explicit the rootedness of black artists like George Walker, Bert Williams, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, August Wilson, and Suzan-Lori Parks to our pedagogical understanding of the US theatre past and present.
The range of historical methodologies and theoretical concepts used by the authors gives teachers a variety of places to launch classroom discussion and, more importantly, provides students with the terminology to contribute generatively. Both the timeline and list for further reading, located respectively in the front and back of the collection, will help students situate topics in their cultural context and embark on individual research paths. Like other books in the Cambridge series, playwrights and literary pursuits take precedence, but Young and colleagues make a concerted effort to address plays as production texts and to include the activities of performers and directors. When read chronologically, the essays contain some overlapping information and repetition of topics, necessary for the internal coherence of each piece. But the collection’s true strength is the reader’s ability to approach the essays individually, alongside the study of different plays, historical eras, or performance practices.
Although the anthology will be an invaluable resource for many instructors teaching courses in theatre, English, and performance studies programs, it will be an exceptional tool for the generalist. As someone who has taught across the theatre arts curriculum, I see the essays’ potential in a variety of classrooms. Introduction to Theatre courses including canonical plays like Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Baraka’s The Dutchman will benefit from the cultural context provided by individual chapters, such as Adrienne Macki Braconi’s “African American Women Dramatists, 1930–1960” and Aimee Zygmonski’s “Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement.” Sandra Shannon’s “Women Playwrights Who Cross Cultural Borders” presents students with another analytical model to examine Hansberry’s work, placing it in conversation with the diasporic dramaturgy of writers from later decades like Kennedy and Lynn Nottage. Sandra Richards’s “African Diaspora Drama” similarly complements Baraka’s text. Monica White Ndounou’s “Early Black Americans on Broadway” and Samuel O’Connell’s “Fragmented Musicals and 1970s Soul Aesthetic” supplement course material on the American musical, notably adding the voices of black artists to a history that more often (but necessarily) includes derogatory and/or inauthentic representations of African Americans by white performers, composers, and lyricists. Acting and directing courses with students confronting the challenges of staging race will find inspiration in a number of the essays, including Douglas Jones Jr.’s “Slavery, Performance, and the Design of African American Theatre,” Faedra Chatard Carpenter’s “Spectacles of Whiteness from Adrienne Kennedy to Suzan-Lori Parks,” and Nadine George-Graves’s “African American Performance and Community Engagement.”
Surveys of American theatre history and drama would do well to include the full compendium of...