135 years ago
In February, 1886, Garland Anderson, the first Black playwright to have a full-length drama produced on Broadway, was born in Wichita, Kansas. Anderson ran away from home at 11, after his mother’s death. In 1922, while working as a bellhop and switchboard operator for the Braeburn Hotel Apartment in San Francisco, a guest gave Anderson a ticket to see The Fool, a morality play by Channing Pollack. Inspired, Anderson decided to write a play to promote faith in God and the power of positive thinking. Relying on his self-taught knowledge of the Bible, Christian Science, New Thought, and his own experiences, he wrote his first play, Don’t Judge by Appearances (later shortened to Appearances) in three weeks. The plot involves Carl, a Black bellhop, recounting a dream where he is falsely accused of rape by a white woman, then later exonerated in a dramatic courtroom scene. In Anderson’s drive and persistence to get the play produced, he raised travel money from Al Jolson to get to New York, got a bank loan to self-produce readings of the play at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Manhattan Opera House, persuaded Governor Al Smith and the Mayor of New York City to attend the readings, and garnered an audience with President Calvin Coolidge, whose support became instrumental in the play opening on Broadway in October 1925.
120 years ago
Though renowned as one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century as well as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, James Mercer Langston Hughes, born on February 1, 1901 in Joplin, Missouri, was also a prolific playwright and celebrated dramatist dedicated to seeing Black plays written by Black artists. Throughout his life, Hughes experimented with a variety of theatrical styles and forms supported by his concern for racial and social justice. One of his major works for the stage is Tambourines to Glory, a gospel play about two women preaching in Harlem, based on a novel he wrote of the same name. When it opened on Broadway in 1963, the cast included such luminaries as Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Guillaume, and Theresa Merritt. Merritt was later nominated for a Tony as the titled lead in August Wilson’s original Broadway production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Hughes also penned Black Nativity for the stage. It opened Off-Broadway in 1961 as a retelling of the Nativity story performed with a cast made up entirely of Black actors, singers, and dances.
95 years ago
This month, Russell Atkins celebrates his birthday in Cleveland, Ohio. Atkins, a playwright, musician, editor, and poet, in 1950 co-founded Free Lance, described recently in Bomb Magazine as a “Black avant-garde publishing house and literary journal.” The first issue of Free Lance featured an introduction by Langston Hughes. Atkins is known for writing two plays in verse, The Abortionist and The Corpse, which were eventually published in Free Lance. In 2013, Pleiades Press, as part of their Unsung Masters Series, published Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master, which contains all of Atkins’s published poems and plays, along with essays by scholars commenting on the profound importance of his body of work.
55 years ago
Playwright, producer, filmmaker, and author David E. Talbert turns 55 this month, after a wildly successful year in which he saw the release of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, a film he wrote, directed, and co-produced. The film was originally planned as a stage production, and was born of Talbert’s desire for his son to enjoy a Christmas musical with Black characters. The film features a phenomenal cast including Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, and Phylicia Rashad. Talbert has written over 15 plays, including The Fabric of a Man, for which he won the NAACP’s Best Playwright of the Year Award, and Tellin’ It Like It Tiz, his first play, which toured nationally for two years after opening at Black Repertory Group Theatre in Berkeley.
25 years ago
In their 1996 season, Signature Theatre Company in New York explored Adrienne Kennedy’s substantial body of experimental plays. Sleep Deprivation Chamber, a play Kennedy co-authored with her son, Adam Kennedy, premiered in February of that year as part of that season dedicated to Kennedy’s work. The play centers on the relationship between a Black mother, Suzanne, and her adult son, Teddy, after a traumatic incident in which a cop brutally beats Teddy during a traffic stop on the pretense of a broken tail light. Teddy, not the cop, is put on trial, and his mother writes letters to public officials to aid in her son’s defense. The play won Kennedy and her son an Obie award, Adrienne Kennedy’s third. Kennedy, now 90 years old, this past fall served as a visiting professor at Harvard’s English Department. Through the end of this month, Round House Theatre is streaming four digital productions of Kennedy’s work in a festival called The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!