African American Studies The American Negro Theatre
by
Jonathan Shandell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0070

Introduction

From the group’s first public performance in June 1940 until its collapse in late 1949 or early 1950, the American Negro Theatre (ANT) stood as Harlem’s preeminent theatrical organization. From modest beginnings (including an initial treasury of less than twenty cents), this company grew in visibility and prestige, achieving prominence both in Harlem and on Broadway, and influencing the evolution of American culture with respect to inclusion of black artists and representations of race. The ensemble achieved new heights for African American artistic autonomy and self-expression within the theater. At the same time, the ANT undertook groundbreaking interracial collaborations and advanced the cause of integration in the theater, through its frequent partnerships with white artists. The ANT’s ongoing fame derives in large part from the accomplishments and visibility achieved by many of its alumni as professional artists, following the company’s demise. Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Earle Hyman, Alice Childress, Clarice Taylor, Frederick O’Neal, William Greaves, and many others worked with ANT early in their careers—gaining experience and training that helped propel them into greater public visibility later in life. Another source of renown for the ANT was the creation of the wildly popular Anna Lucasta—which began in Harlem before transferring to a historic two-year run on Broadway, an engagement in London’s West End, and two Hollywood film adaptations. Anna Lucasta still stands as the longest-running play in Broadway history with an entirely African American cast. Despite its collapse amid financial hardships after ten years of activity, the ANT’s influence—both on African American cultural expression as well as on commercial entertainment in the United States—has been transformative and far-reaching.

General Overviews

In-depth accounts of the activities of the ANT can be found in Shandell 2018 and Walker 1987. A chapter-length version of Walker’s research on the ANT is presented in Walker 1975. Another useful and brief overview exists in Hill and Hatch 2003. The ANT is a frequent reference point within the more sweeping critique of Harlem’s cultural history found in Cruse 1967, as well as in the oral histories of Harlem theater collected in Mitchell 1975 (cited under Autobiographical Accounts).

  • Cruse, Harold. Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership. New York: Quill, 1967.

    E-mail Citation »

    Cruse’s wide-ranging study of Harlem culture makes repeated reference to the ANT and its work in the 1940s. As a Marxist and black nationalist critic, Cruse condemns the ANT’s integrationist and commercially minded activities.

  • Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Pages 350–357 provide an overview of the ANT within a definitive study of the history of African American theater, written by theater historian James V. Hatch. Hatch relies extensively on oral histories and materials found in his own archive of materials that document the history of African American theater.

  • Peterson, Bernard L. The African American Theatre Directory, 1816–1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Black Theatre Organizations, Companies, Theatres, and Performing Groups. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    This reference volume is an exhaustive catalogue of African American theater companies active prior to 1960 across the United States. Its entry on the ANT provides a useful overview of the company and its history.

  • Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “The 75th Anniversary of the American Negro Theatre.” New York: New York Public Library.

    E-mail Citation »

    To mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the ANT, the New York Public Library unveiled a special exhibition in the basement of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (the same space where the ANT was founded). The website associated with this exhibition includes historical information, photographs, videos, and blog posts that shed light on the ANT and its legacy.

  • Shandell, Jonathan. The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv3f8rvfE-mail Citation »

    The only comprehensive book-length study of the ANT and its influence on US culture. The first half of the book recounts the history of the theater, with detailed accounts of key productions. The second half of the book studies the subsequent careers of several ANT artists and considers the ongoing influence of the ANT on theater, film, and television in the second half of the 20th century.

  • Walker, Ethel Pitts. “The American Negro Theatre, 1940–1949.” PhD diss., University of Missouri, 1975.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first in-depth, comprehensive scholarly study written of the ANT. Walker narrates the history of the organization, providing descriptions of the plays it staged, overviews of the critical reception of its productions, and assessments of the company’s achievements as a ground-breaking African American ensemble. The account includes quotations from many personal interviews with former ANT members and appendixes that catalogue many of the group’s productions.

  • Walker, Ethel Pitts. “The American Negro Theatre.” In The Theatre of Black Americans: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Errol G. Hill, 247–260. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    A chapter-length condensation of the longer account found in Walker 1975, presented within a wide-ranging critical anthology on the history of African American theater.

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