THE FIRST BLACK ACTORS ON THE GREAT WHITE WAY by Susan Curtis

THE FIRST BLACK ACTORS ON THE GREAT WHITE WAY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The author explores unto tedium the genesis of the first Broadway production to feature an all-black cast and wonders why it never survived along the Great White Way. “Three Plays for a Negro Theater,” written by Ridgely Torrence, produced by Emilie Hapgood, and directed by Robert Edmond Jones—all white—debuted at the Garden Theatre on April 5, 1917. The show unfortunately opened a day before the US entered WWI. Greeted with generally favorable reviews, the production enjoyed a successful short run, according to Curtis, (Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A life of Scott Joplin, 1994), before closing later the same month. 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, long after she’s made these concessions, she nonetheless spends a good bit of energy puzzling over the facts. Here for the first time was serious drama being presented to an audience accustomed to seeing blacks portrayed largely as comic cartoon figures—buffoons, at best. Curtis looks at the motivations of the production staff, the quality of the black cast, the state of theater at the turn of the century, and the cultural and social circumstances under which the plays were produced. And she does come up with perfectly good answers to the questions she raises—but continues to debate ad nauseam. Well meaning and often instructive, yet terribly labored.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8262-1195-X
Page count: 296pp
Publisher: Univ. of Missouri
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1998