African Americans on the (Post) Reconstruction Stage

Saxon, Theresa orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-2129-2570 and Merrill, Lisa (2020) African Americans on the (Post) Reconstruction Stage. In: American Literature 1880-1900. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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While African American theater of the 1880s to the 1900s generally has been regarded as emphasizing musicals and light comedy, financed by white producers, and characterized by extravaganzas such as Sam T Jack’s The Creole Show (1890), and musicals, such as John Isham’s Octoroons (1895) and Oriental America (1896), African American writers and performers explored drama in many different genres in this period. Evidence exists of African American productions of a variety of dramatic types; from productions of Shakespeare by such companies as the Astor Place Company of Colored Tragedians; to new plays, often authored by featured Black performers, such as Pauline Hopkins’ Peculiar Sam (1879), Powhatan Beatty’s Delmar; Or Scenes in Southland (1881), and Henrietta Vinton Davis and John Edward Bruce’s Old Kentucky Home (1898), many of which used theatrical forms to retell stories of black history and heroism; to outdoor pageants and extravaganzas, such as Billy McClain’s Black America (1895). Additionally, many of the black performers we discuss here wrote, selected or starred in vehicles that consciously instructed or reflected on black history. Finally, notable theater collaborations of the era resulted in the better-known musical show endeavors of John W. Isham and Will Marion Cook.In the article that follows we explore these performers, genres, and select performances, and we note particular challenges that face theater historians researching black theatrical and performative artistry in this period. Categories such as “amateur” and “professional” are not only meaningless at this time; they obscure both the material conditions of black artists’ lives, and lead to a potential devaluing or complete erasure of the theater work black artists undertook, often while employed for most of their lives in other occupations. For example, much black theater grew out of “amateur” troupes, such as “Our Boys Dramatic Club” which was active in Baltimore 1888; and as we will note, even accomplished playwrights and performers were employed in other activities, such as Pauline Hopkins who supported herself for much of her life as a stenographer. Furthermore, the venues in which much black theater was staged often were outside the limits of conventional theatrical spaces; located in parks, churches, concert venues and even private homes, as well as theaters. Moreover, the period 1880-1900 is marked by institutionalized segregation, particularly as a result of the 1883 Supreme Court decision that stipulated the 1875 Civil Rights Act was not enforceable for private persons or corporations, further consolidated by the 1896 “separate but Equal” Supreme Court decision in Plessy V Ferguson. Therefore, we note that audiences of 1880-1900 were almost exclusively segregated, so performances were often directed at two distinct spaces within the theater setting.

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