Theater and Performance in the 19th Century
- LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0091
- LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0091
Theater and performance of the long 19th century (1789–1914) is one of the most dynamic fields in African American studies today. Scholars have turned to these embodied practices to understand the achievements, hardships, and imaginaries of black life in this period because enslaved and free African Americans were often denied access to, or the wherewithal to use, the archivable materials we traditionally use for historical research. The field has devised innovative methodologies and reading practices to reimagine and theorize the aesthetics, affects, labor demands, and politics of African American theater and performance in this period. These critical strategies have helped to offset some of the challenges that hinder the study of all live performance. In spite of these limitations, generative observations of theatrical and performance cultures of the enslaved and free African Americans are available, albeit often beneath layers of condemnation, mockery, and scorn. This article focuses on primary works that document, and criticism that analyzes, the origins and evolution of African American theater culture from the late 18th century up to but not including the New Negro (or Harlem) Renaissance (c. 1920). It also offers representative studies of contemporaneous dance and music that help to contextualize black theatrical practice, but it leaves the bulk of that scholarship to other bibliographies. Major archival collections, canonical play texts, and a broad range of criticism clustered in major scholarly categories of African American theater and performance of the era are included here.
Overviews and Play Collections
The works in this section offer invaluable points of entry into the study of the beginnings of African American theater and performance cultures, from discussions of drama in Hill and Hatch 2003 and McAllister 2014 to popular music in Southern 1997 and dance in Emery 1972. Collections like Hatch and Shine 1996 reveal the diversity of forms and genres that characterized the first century of African American dramaturgy. These include works that are now canonical, such as Wells Brown 1858 (cited under William Wells Brown and Abolitionist Performance) and Hopkins 1879 (cited under Pauline Hopkins, Jubilee Singers, and Postbellum Musical Comedy); and anti-lynching dramas of the early 20th century, such as Grimké 1920 (cited under Black Musical Comedies and the Modern). This section also includes cornerstone theories of African American dramaturgy, such as Locke 2012, and early efforts in African American theater historiography, such as Johnson 1991.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
Originally published in 1903. A cornerstone of (African) American literature, this collection of historical, autobiographical, and sociological essays on race includes Du Bois’s influential configuration of the Negro’s “double-consciousness,” theories of African American public expression, and his seminal work on slave spirituals or “sorrow songs,” which he deemed the only true American music. This edition supplies excellent historical and intellectual background (“Contexts”) as well as several critical essays from leading scholars of Souls (“Criticism”).
Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970. Palo Alto, CA: National Press Books, 1972.
With its still rich bibliography, Emery’s book remains the definitive text on the origins of black dance in the United States. The book’s scope is transnational and diasporic, and it includes invaluable insights into West Indian influences on early (African) American dance.
Hatch, James V., and Ted Shine, eds. Black Theatre, USA: Plays by African Americans; The Early Period, 1847–1938. Rev. ed. New York: Free Press, 1996.
This collection of twenty-eight musicals, plays, and pageants covers a range of genres and theatrical movements, from minstrelsy and musical comedy to symbolism and modernist folk drama. For each text, the editors include historical context, information on script development and audience reception, and a biographical sketch for its writer(s).
Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Hill and Hatch offer a comprehensive survey of the history of African American theater from its origins in the 17th century through the early 21st century. Of particular interest is its overview of the African (or Grove) Theatre, blackface minstrelsy, adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and fin-de-siècle dramas and musicals. The authors also include important perspectives into the influence of Caribbean theatrical and performance styles on US ones, most notably regarding comedy.
Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. New York: Da Capo, 1991.
Originally published in 1930. A groundbreaking cultural history of African American life in and around New York City from its colonial beginnings through the 1920s. The most rewarding insights stem from Johnson’s intimate, first-hand accounts of the black theatrical and musical world of the early 20th century drawn from his own extensive experience in the performing arts.
Locke, Alain. The Works of Alain Locke. Edited by Charles Molesworth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
The leading cultural theorist and editor of African American letters of his era, Alain Locke wrote several important essays on African American dramaturgy, theater, and performance. Those essays, along with others that lay out his general theories of aesthetics and race, are collected in Parts 1–4.
McAllister, Marvin. “Rise of African American Drama, 1822–1879.” In The Oxford Handbook of American Drama. Edited by Jeffrey H. Richards and Heather S. Nathans, 218–233. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
McAllister offers a general introduction to the major writers, themes, character types, and performers of the first wave of African American drama.
Odell, George Clinton. Annals of the New York Stage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1927–1940.
A monumental record of the New York stage from its 18th-century beginnings through the mid-1890s. Replete with broadsides, playbills, and illustrations, Odell’s multivolume work has been digitized into searchable formats and is widely available online via university libraries and the Oxford Reference database.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.
First published in 1971, Southern’s classic study of black music begins with the arrival of African slaves in colonial Virginia in 1619 and the musical heritage they and other black captives brought with them. From there she traces the cultural and historical development of several music genres, styles, and traditions through the late 20th century, offering biographical accounts of significant composers, instrumentalists, and singers.
Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999.
Watkins’s exhaustive and indispensable history situates African American comedy within a broader context of American popular culture. It explores comedic forms, genres, and strategies on theatrical stages (blackface minstrelsy, melodrama, comic duos, vaudeville) and off the stages (everyday life on the plantation, music genres like ragtime and the blues, wordplay in the streets).
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