The First Black Actors on the Great White Way by Susan Curtis

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Synopsis

On April 5, 1917, Three Plays for a Negro Theater by Ridgely Torrence opened at the Garden Theatre in New York City. This performance was a monumental event in American stage history. Not only was this the first dramatic production to portray African American life beyond the cliché, it was also the first production on Broadway to feature an all-black cast. The morning after the three plays were performed, newspapers were filled with praise for the cast, crew, and playwright. Audience member W. E. B. Du Bois declared the show "epoch making." Despite such early critical acclaim, Three Plays for a Negro Theater closed before the end of the month and received little attention thereafter.

Why was a nation, so fascinated with firsts, able to forget these black actors and this production so quickly? It is this question that Susan Curtis addresses in The First Black Actors on the Great White Way.

Set against the backdrop of transforming theater conventions in the early 1900s and the war in 1917, this important study relates the stories of the actors, stage artists, critics, and many others—black and white—involved in this groundbreaking production. Curtis explores in great depth both the progress in race relations that led to this production and the multifaceted reasons for its quick demise.

Three Plays for a Negro Theater opened on the eve of the United States' entrance into World War I. Curtis attributes the early closure of the three plays to this coincidence, but she does not settle for so simple an explanation. Rather, she investigates the heightened national self-consciousness that followed the United States' entry into the war. America was ready to "make the world safe for democracy," but it was not fully ready to accept democracy and equality in its own culture.

The First Black Actors on the Great White Way is not simply a study of African American theater and its entrance into American culture. By focusing on a single event at a critical moment in history, Curtis offers a unique glimpse into race relations in early-twentieth-century American society. The experience of these pioneering artists reveals an unexplored aspect of the painfully slow evolution of racial equality.

A remarkable story about people who waged an extraordinary campaign against racism, The First Black Actors on the Great White Way will be of special interest to scholars of American studies, race relations, and cultural history, as well as the general reader.

 

About Susan Curtis

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Founders of Neal's Yard Remedies, author Susan Curtis offer a unique guide to healing body, mind and spirit.
 
Published December 1, 1998 by Univ of Missouri Pr. 277 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Humor & Entertainment, Arts & Photography, Literature & Fiction, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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Curtis concedes the war as a factor in its demise, acknowledging that racism may have played a role, too: “Between Jim Crow, lynching, poll taxes, and the threat of terrorism by white supremacists, the rights guaranteed by the Constitution were not always enjoyed by African Americans.”And yet, lo...

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Publishers Weekly

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Most chroniclers blame the U.S. entry into WW I, one day after the play opened, but Curtis, a Purdue professor of history and American studies, places the blame with mainstream white audiences, who weren't ready or willing to seriously consider the play's implicit critique of racial inequality.

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Project MUSE

Three Plays for a Negro Theater was the first Broadway production by a white author (Torrence), white producer (Emilie Hapgood), and white director (Robert Edmond Jones) to make use of an all-black cast.

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Project MUSE

The preconceived notions of whites that African Americans acted from instinct rather than experience and that the histrionic standards set by white actors had to be duplicated by African American actors, despite their exclusion from white study circles, also hampered critical reception.

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Project MUSE

Curtis maintains that the story of this long-obscure production has much to tell us about the fundamental ways race inflects the production and reception of art and entertainment in the U.S. Throughout her carefully researched study, Curtis exploits the obvious juxtaposition of "Black actors" and...

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Project MUSE

Three Plays for a Negro Theater was the first Broadway production by a white author (Torrence), white producer (Emilie Hapgood), and white director (Robert Edmond Jones) to make use of an all-black cast.

| Read Full Review of The First Black Actors on the...

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