BLACK THEATRE IN AMERICA by James Haskins

BLACK THEATRE IN AMERICA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A conscientious history of the sort that begins in Colonial times with the first white theater performance and early black achievements (as soldiers, etc.), then proceeds chronologically to the present, profiling historic black companies, theaters, actors, and playwrights along the way. However straight the scheme, though, Haskins has done more than make a collection of historical information available; his unobtrusive commentary not only gives it shape, but also brings out some of the recurrent strains and fluctuations. We learn of the development of the minstrel show from touring bands of semiprofessional blacks to ""not unsympathetic"" white imitators in blackface, then after the Civil War to rigid stereotypes by whites--and then by blacks, also in blackface. From the minstrel show, says Haskins, evolved the modern musical comedy; the transitional duo Williams and Walker, who billed themselves as ""Two Real Coons"" and made the cakewalk fashionable, also starred in the show In Dahomey which ""may well have"" inspired the Crosby/Hope ""road"" films. As black shows became popular with whites, taboos remained against romantic love scenes, which whites would find ridiculous; later, the depression-spawned Federal Theater Project, which provided much opportunity to blacks in theater, could not portray blacks and whites banding together as this was deemed ""Communist inspired."" The Harlem Renaissance, says Haskins, depended largely on white patronage, thus opening the ""New Negro"" to the danger of being a pet; and so later, the separate, identifiably black theater that emerged in the '60s ""depended more than they wanted it to on the white media and on white funding sources."" Black productions abounded on Broadway in the 1970s, but as in other periods they were either revivals or musicals. (""Theater is more than an oversized nightclub."") Today, in black as in white theater, ""Broadway is no longer where it's happening."" Because of financial pressures, ""daring creative theater"" must be sought Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway--and, in the case of black theater, perhaps in a national movement not centered in New York--in such enterprises as New York's Negro Ensemble Company and Woodie King, Jr.'s incipient National Black Touring Circuit. Returning in the end to W.E.B. DuBois' conditions for black theater--it must be ""about us, by us, for us, and near us""--and assessing to what extent they've been met today (the last condition scarcely at all), Haskins sees the climate tougher than in the '60s but also sees hope for a stronger theater of the people.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Crowell