In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Theater in the 20th Century

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources: Anthologies
  • Theater Histories
  • Single-Playwright Studies
  • Black Women Playwrights
  • Racial Representation and Legacies of Slavery
  • Politics and Social Movements
  • Black Theater and Broadway

African American Studies Theater in the 20th Century
Stacie McCormick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0078


Black theater in the 20th century comprises a wide array of dramatic productions by black Americans growing out of the legacies of minstrel-era performance of the 19th century. As a result, black theater has largely been driven by the desire to present depictions of black life that were not overdetermined by the white gaze. A dynamic corpus of literary, dramatic, and expressive art, black theater of the 20th century has been foundational to the development of black theater as it is known today. This period was also concerned with questions central to black theater such as: What should black plays be about? Where should black theaters be located? Who can write a black play? What is a black play? Various theater companies, playwrights, and artistic movements have forged responses to such questions with each deepening the textures of black theater. In a significant and early articulation of what black theater should be, W.E.B. Du Bois, writing in the July 1926 issue of The Crisis, established the governing mantra for the Harlem-based theater company the Krigwa Players and black theater more broadly. He states that it should be should be “About us by us . . . for us . . . [and] near us.” Voices such as Alain Locke and Theophilus Lewis would deepen these conversations with their own perspectives on the purpose of black theater with Locke advocating for a lessened emphasis on social issues and Lewis expressing the need to appeal to working-class black Americans whose support for black theater was unwavering. Moreover, theater companies; artistic and social movements; and the work of playwrights such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Adrienne Kennedy, and Suzan-Lori Parks would go on to develop a critical body of work that makes up black theater of the 20th century. Black theater of the 20th century is intrinsically tied to black performance histories of storytelling, improvisation, “signifyin’,” humor, and masking. This dramatic work has contributed greatly to the project of self-authorship and expression that sits at the heart of black literature. This entry traverses the many contours of 20th-century black theater moving from broader explorations of anthologies and theater histories to close analyses of playwrights and finally to emergent thematic examinations that signal future directions for the study of 20th-century black theater.

General Overviews

The project of producing a history of black theater is fraught with difficulty due to historical underdocumentation of its dramatic production, particularly of the early 20th century. So, any attempt to give a comprehensive understanding of 20th-century black theater is sure to be ambitious. This is characteristic of Hay 1994 and Hill and Hatch 2003, each of which is described by their authors as a first comprehensive history of black theater. If only for its longer reach and inclusion of more expansive archival material, Hill and Hatch 2003 offers a deeper exploration of the dramatic production of this period. Sanders 1988 presents an early effort to theorize the development of black theater more broadly, though it unfortunately omits black women from the discourse. Peterson 1998 proves much more exhaustive and comprehensive in providing copious information on the development of black theater across time. Apprehending the various movements and historical developments within the field, Elam and Krasner 2001 takes up black theater across the 20th century with special attention to its performative underpinnings. Young 2012 does much of the same but focuses particularly on black theater through lenses of political and cultural change. Studies that address black theater of the late 20th century, such as Harris and Larson 2007, shift toward prominent playwrights emerging after the black arts movement which was incredibly consequential to the development of black theater. Two particular companion works, Bullins 1968 and Smith, et al. 2005, illuminate the trajectory of black theater in important ways. Bullins 1968 constitutes one of the first scholarly journal issues devoted to black theater. More than three decades later, Smith, et al. 2005 gathers prominent theater practitioners and scholars of the 20th century to contemplate black theater—past, present, and future. DeFrantz and Gonzalez 2014 engages various aspects of black theater from a performance studies perspective, which constitutes new and exciting ways to approach the study of black theater.

  • Bullins, Ed., ed. Special Issue: Black Theater. The Drama Review (TDR) 12.4 (1968).

    Groundbreaking special issue featuring black theater. Opens with a reflection by Ed Bullins on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; subsequently, the special issue is contextualized within this tragic backdrop as contributors theorize the meaning of black revolutionary theatre in that present moment. Features plays and a directory of contemporaneous black theater groups across the United States. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • DeFrantz, Thomas, and Anita Gonzalez, eds. Black Performance Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

    A definitive text on the study of black performance, which features pioneering thinkers who advance the growing interdisciplinary field of black performance studies. Of particular connection to black theater, this collection details performance practices undergirding black theater, particularly black sonic traditions (from Little Richard to hip hop), choreography, and black archetypal figures such as the tragic mulatta and the trickster figure Anansi.

  • Elam, Harry, Jr., and David Krasner, eds. African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A collection of critical writing that looks at the intersections of race, theater, and performance in America. Contributors to this volume explore social protest, the politics of racial representation, cultural traditions and memory, and gender. The work ends with a roundtable of theater and performance scholars reflecting on the state of black theater, which took place at the Association for Theater in Higher Education Conference on August 7, 1997.

  • Harris, Trudier, and Jennifer Larson, eds. Reading Contemporary African American Drama: Fragments of History, Fragments of Self. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

    This collection covers black drama of the mid-20th century to the early 21st century. This work offers analyses of key figures in mid-to-late-20th-century black dramatic production: Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, August Wilson, Alice Childress, Pearl Cleage, and Suzan-Lori Parks.

  • Hay, Samuel A. African American Theatre: A Historical and Critical Analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570438

    A first comprehensive history of black theater from the 19th century to 1992. This work served as one of the first textbooks that addressed acute pedagogical needs for the study of black theater. The text traces ideological differences about what black theater should be and its influence on the development of black theater. Also, Hay offers insight on issues of governance and the future of black theater.

  • Hill, Erroll, and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Voluminous history of black theater from slavery and through the 20th century. The work covers a myriad of topics such as black performance traditions, gender, class, race, and politics. This work also crosses national boundaries to highlight the contributions of Caribbean dramatists and performers to black theater.

  • Peterson, Bernard, Jr. Contemporary Black American Playwrights and their Plays: A Biographical Directory and Dramatic Index. New York: Greenwood Press, 1998.

    Organized as an encyclopedia, this work contains information on approximately six hundred playwrights and their dramas. An expansive resource and one of the first of its kind. Also includes a foreword by James V. Hatch.

  • Sanders, Leslie C. The Development of Black Theatre in America: From Shadows to Selves. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

    A study of the development of black theater in America which focuses on five playwrights: Willis Richardson, Randolph Edmonds, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Ed Bullins. Sanders examines how these playwrights develop what she calls a “black stage reality” that frees black subjects from functioning as metaphors on stage. While useful, the text fails to address how black women participated in shaping cultural perceptions of black Americans via theater.

  • Smith, Anna Deaveare, Suzan-Lori Parks, Robbie McCauley, et al. “A Forum on Black Theatre: The Questions: What Is a Black Play? and/or What Is Playing Black?” Theatre Journal 57.4 (December 2005): 571–616.

    A gathering of prominent voices (composed of playwrights, performers, and scholars) in black theater reflecting on black drama through the lens of two incisive questions: “What Is a Black Play?” and “What Is Playing Black?” Each of the respondents—Anna Deaveare Smith, Tavia Nyong’o, James V. Hatch, Sandra Shannon, and Suzan-Lori Parks, to name a few—offered creative and critical takes on the question. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Young, Harvey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    A thorough overview of African American theater of the 19th and 20th centuries. Covers topics including slavery, racial performance, Broadway, The Negro Little Theatre Movement, black women dramatists, the Black Arts Movement, the 1970s soul aesthetic, and African diasporic drama. This collection sheds light on black theater through the lenses of political and cultural change.

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