March 1916 (105 years ago)
The Harvard Dramatic Club announced that two of the four plays produced in their annual spring competition would be by white female playwrights: Rachel Barton Butler’s one-act play Francois-Amour and The Rescue by Rita Creighton Smith. Butler studied at Radcliffe College and Smith graduated from Smith College. Both were students of George Pierce Baker’s famed Workshop 47, a playwriting workshop at Harvard. Butler had experience as a professional actress, but preferred the success she found writing plays. Her play Mama’s Affair would go on to have a four-month Broadway run and be adapted into a silent film. Smith’s play The Rescue is included in the 1918 edition of an anthology of Plays of the Harvard Dramatic Club, which was recently reprinted in 2014.
March 1931 (90 years ago)
Theatre artist Nancy Douglas Bowditch set out on a Baháʼí pilgrimage with her 19-year-old daughter. Bowditch, born in 1890 in Paris, was the daughter and biographer of the renowned painter George de Forest Brush. She had a lifelong interest in “pageantry and the theatre—as an author of short plays, a designer of sets, a costumer, and producer.” While working in Brookline, Mass., as a costume designer, Bowditch yearned for spiritual fulfillment, which she found in the Baháʼí faith. Following the pilgrimage, she devoted her theatrical talents to promoting her spiritual community.
March 1946 (75 years ago)
March 13 of this year marked the passing of Mary P. “Mamie” Burrill, a Black playwright and renowned educator born in August 1881 in Washington, D.C. Burrill’s one-act plays They That Sit in Darkness and Aftermath, both written in 1919, tackled such social issues as birth control and war. In a teaching career that spanned nearly 40 years, Burrill taught and directed plays and musical productions at Dunbar High School and other schools in the D.C. area. She had a profound influence on students James Butcher, May Miller, and Willis Richardson, who all became theatre artists. She was an early intimate of poet, playwright, and activist Angelina Weld Grimké, who is “remembered as foremother in Black lesbian literature and thought.” Burrill lived most of her adult life with Lucy Diggs Stowe, the dean of women at Howard University. The home they lived in, in the Brookland neighborhood of D.C., is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2020.
March 1981 (40 years ago)
This month Eulalie Spence died in Gettysburg, Pa., at the age of 86. A Black playwright, actress, director, and educator from the British West Indies, she was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, wrote over 14 plays, had a profound influence on a pupil named Joseph Papp, and helped launch, with W.E.B. Dubois, the Krigwa Players, but her obituary did not mention that she was a theatre artist. Instead she was remembered primarily as a highly regarded educator. During her life, she called herself as a “folk dramatist.” Artist and academic Elizabeth Brown-Guillory says Spence should be credited with “initiating feminism in plays by Black women.”
March 1996 (25 years ago)
This month marked the passing of Margaret Bland, a white playwright and poet from North Carolina. Born in 1898, she received a degree in 1920 from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and went on to pursue playwriting, receiving an MFA at the Department of Dramatic Arts of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While at UNC, she became an active member of the Carolina Players, now known as PlayMakers Repertory Company. The characters that populated Bland’s plays were often young Appalachian people struggling with isolation in the mountains. Bland was a devoted Francophile and became fascinated with the work of Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco. Late in life, Bland dedicated time and energy to promote racial equity in the South, with a particular emphasis on voting rights for Black Southerners.
March 2006 (15 years ago)
The Cataract, by Lisa D’Amour, opened Off-Broadway at the Women’s Project on March 22, directed by D’Amour’s frequent collaborator, Katie Pearl. A review of the production in Variety revealed, “About halfway through Lisa D’Amour’s The Cataract, we see a woman pull an iris out of her eye. Not the eyeball iris, mind you, but the flower, long-stemmed and purple. It’s a fantasy moment, sure, but the woman’s screams as she yanks the plant free sound painfully true. And that’s just where The Cataract lives, caught between symbolism and reality. By refusing to relinquish either style, it taps the potential of both.”
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