- The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre edited by Harvey Young
In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his oft-quoted definition of African American theatre as “by us, for us, about us, and near us” (134). Seventy years later, August Wilson’s 1996 manifesto, The Ground on Which I Stand, defined African American theatre as representing specific “cultural values” (29). For Du Bois and Wilson, these “values” depart from white American drama and performance, forming a unique aesthetic that begins immediately at the dawn of the United States and grows noncoincidently and simultaneously with the rise of minstrelsy. By the time post-emancipation African Americans take the stage during the later part of the 19th century, the representation of the performer and the issues of authorship have already experienced a long and fraught history. The combinations of factors having ontological histories challenge the imagination: whites in blackface, blacks in blackface, and blacks in whiteface; blacks performing before black audiences, white audiences, and mixed-race audiences (and where blacks in theatres could sit in the auditoriums); black authors and white actors, white authors and black actors, black or white directors for black-authored plays, and blacks performing in plays originally written for whites; blacks owning their own theatres, blacks working in black community theatres only, or blacks crossing over to the mainstream; colorblind casting, cross-racial casting, and racial stereotyping or counter-stereotyping; and plays dealing with diaspora, lynching, ritual, self-expression, language, violence, music, humor, pathos, and tragedy. No wonder scholars from multiple fields have gravitated to this subject, intrigued by the implications and possibilities for incorporating and addressing not only issues of performance and race, but also using the tools of cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, history, and performance studies—creating a veritable laboratory of social theory.
By focusing on the enormous jigsaw of African American theatre, editor Harvey Young and his team have helped clarify the contours of this history. In The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, the main claims made by Young’s introduction and the 13 essayists are that African American theatre is a political vehicle for civil rights and social justice, that throughout its history African American theatre struggled to create a unique identity, and that the history of African American theatre is richly endowed with creative artists and gifted talents. Young arranges the subjects chronologically, starting with 18th- and early 19th-century slave performers and rebellions represented onstage, moving to blacks breaking through to Broadway during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, into the heady times of the Harlem Renaissance and the Negro Little Theatre Movement, followed by examinations of dramatists during the Great Depression and the fecund period of the Black Arts Movement, the history of black musicals, the rise of community-engagement theatre, and finally analyzing contemporary dramas and dramatists who have added to the complexity of this subject. Every chapter is thoroughly [End Page 177] researched and thoughtfully written. Young has gathered together a critical mass of the best and brightest researchers in African American studies, mixing established senior scholars with rising junior professors who will eventually become the leading voices in the field. The most compelling aspect of the collection is its presentation of the work of this emerging group of eight superb young scholars—Douglas Jones, Monica White Ndounou, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Jonathan Shandell, Adrienne Macki Braconi, Aimee Zygmonski, Samuel O’Connell, and Faedra Chatard Carpenter—who will carry the field into the future.
The anthology is straightforward and conventional, historiographically wedged between Errol Hill and James V. Hatch’s magisterial History of African American Theatre on the one hand, which similarly arranges chapters chronologically, and two anthologies on the other: African American Performance and Theatre History: A Critical Reader, which I edited with Harry Elam; and Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker, and Gus Edwards’s Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora. The latter two works are arranged thematically and are more theoretical and eclectic than The Cambridge Companion. The...