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DRAMA 494 A: Special Studies in Theatre and Drama

Meeting Time: 
MW 3:00pm - 4:50pm
HUT 130
Stefka Mihaylova
Stefka Mihaylova

Syllabus Description:

Drama 494 A

African American Theatre History

Winter 2019


Class meeting times: Monday, Wednesday 3:00 -4:50

Location: Hutchinson 130


Instructor: Dr. Stefka Mihaylova

Office Hours: Friday 1:00-2:00 and by appointment; Hutchinson 112C




This course surveys key moments and movements in the history of African American performance. The major questionit explores is how African Americans used performance to transform themselves from people without rights into a public that pursued an equitable position in the US nation. We start by looking at how social theorists have defined the terms public and nation. We then proceed with the founding of the African Theatre in 1821, the first professional African American company on record, and its acclaimed performance of Shakespeare's Richard III. Next, we analyze African Americans' involvement in the controversial genre of American minstrelsy. We then move onto the pageants and drama of the Harlem Renaissance, the drama and performance art of the Black Arts Movement, and African American theatre and protest movements of the 1990s and today. From its inception, African American performance has always, necessarily, been a political tool as well as an art practice; its aesthetics changed in response to specific historical challenges. This political history is integral to the course.


By the end of the course you will

  • Become acquainted with major figures, companies, and movements in the history of African American performance within the larger context of US history
  • Learn about social-theoretical concepts such as publics, counterpublics, and nation
  • Read play scripts and dramatic theories by important African American writers


  • At RAM Copy Center: a course packet. The course packet contains all secondary texts and four plays
  • All plays that are not included in the course packet are electronically available through the UW library website.


  • Rent and watch Selma on, youtube, or elsewhere by Feb 27. The rental price at is $3.99.
  • All other documentaries are free on youtube.


All students are accountable for the information about academic integrity printed in the Student Conduct Code. Students are also responsible for the following standards: (1) Participation is required in all classes, and lack of participation is cause for failure. (2) Credit will not be given for two courses that meet at the same time. (3) To receive credit for a course, students must complete all of the work assigned. (4) Assignments must be turned in on time. Students are not entitled to make-up assignments or to grades of Incomplete unless the instructor has approved such arrangements in advance. Extensions should be requested in advance of the deadline.

This course will be strictly governed by the University of Washington’s policies on academic dishonesty.


Assignments                                                                                      Due

Participation (including discussion questions): 30%                        Every class session                

Test One 15%                                                                                     Feb. 6

Test Two: 15%                                                                                   March 21                    

Research Project: 40%                      

  • Abstract and annotated bibliography 13
  • First draft/version (optional) 25
  • Final draft/version March 13

Participation (including discussion questions and response papers):

  • Participation is a key component of this discussion-based course and amounts to one third of your final grade. To receive maximum points for participation you need to come to class on time, having read all the assigned text, and being prepared to discuss them in detail.
  • At specific times, each student will have to prepare discussion questionsbased on the readings and post them on the CANVAS site of the course by noonon the day of the relevant class session.

Tests 1 and 2: These tests include a number of short questions, asking you to define terms and identify historical figures, and a longer essay question to be completed in class. Review questions will be distributed before each exam.


Research Project: You have three options for your research project.

  • Research paper: Your research paper will explore the work of a theatre person (actor, manager, playwright, designer, etc.) or company in relation to a major historical movement. For instance, you could write about how in his adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin George Aiken used the conventions of sentimentality and melodrama to pursue specific objectives of the abolitionist movement; why Suzan-Lori Park’s embarked on a utopian reimagining of blackness in the context of continuing discrimination against African Americans in the 1990s, etc. The evaluation criteria include depth of research, originality of analysis, and mastery of writing technique. Drafts are optional but strongly encouraged. Essays must be submitted on CANVAS. If you wish to receive writing creditfor this course, you mustsubmit a complete draft by Feb. 23.
  • Research portfolio: For your research portfolio, you may choose to design either three period costume for an African American play of your choice or a set for an act or a scene. The major piece of the portfolio will be the design(s) itself (themselves) and a five-page explanation of your work process (why you chose this play: what is compelling to you about the characters for whom you designed costumes or the act/scene for which you designed a set. What important moments of character analysis or scene/act analysis informed your design). The portfolio needs to also include evidence of research: e. g., images you identified as you learned about the period of the play and African American life during that period; and a bibliography of articles/books you consulted in preparing your designs. Design projects will be evaluated by myself in consultation with Prof. Deborah Trout or Prof. Skip Mercier.
  • A grant: Identify a creative or research grant that enables you to deepen your knowledge of African American performance. The criteria for the grant will be used as evaluation criteria.

Criteria for Assessment:

Agrades reflect work that demonstrates deep, thorough and detailed knowledge, clear logical structures, correct and purposeful use of language, proper referencing, vivid and imaginative thinking and writing, a clear grasp of theoretical and historical concepts, developed reasoning, and well-substantiated arguments.

Bgrades reflect work that demonstrates deep, thorough and detailed knowledge, clear logical structures, correct and purposeful use of language, proper referencing, a good grasp of theoretical concepts, developed reasoning, and well-substantiated arguments, but not much imaginative thinking and writing. Bwork does not contribute original ideas and arguments, but relies only on the ideas and knowledge discussed in class.

Cgradesreflect work that shows inconsistent or partial solutions to problems, and understanding of basic ideas and methods.

D and Fgrades reflect work that shows inconsistent or partial solution to problems, is superficial, confused, showing incorrect or absent references, an unoriginal or absent viewpoint, poor grasp of critical theory, sloppy writing or proofreading, undeveloped ideas, lack of originality, irrelevant material, or irrelevant substantiation.


Students with disabilities will be accommodated on a confidential basis. See Professor.


Note on the course content: The history of African American performance reveals the astounding creativity of people living under extremely difficult conditions. More often than not, their art engages with the violence that they had to endure on a daily basis. Inevitably, this course deals with traumatic topics such as lynching, persecution, and subtler but deeply offensive forms of discrimination. Additionally, in the past, numerous well-meaning white authors who supported the equality of African Americans used language and imagery that nowadays we find insensitive. It is impossible to avoid this history, along with its language and imagery. It is equally impossible to appreciate the artistic accomplishments of African Americans without knowledge of this history.

Class Schedule (by week number):

** All texts should be read beforethe designated class


Week One

Jan 7, Mon. Publics, Counterpublics, and Nations

Read: Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” and Benedict Anderson, Introduction to Imagined Communities


Questions: Why is it important to be recognized as part of a public, counterpublic, or a nation? Drawing on your general knowledge, reflect on what difficulties African Americans may have encountered while trying to constitute themselves as a counterpublic or become recognized as part of the US nation?


Jan 9, Wed. Black Dandies

Read: Joanna Brooks, “The Early American Public Sphere and the Emergence of a Black Print Counterpublic,”The William and Mary Quarterly62.1 (2005): 67-9; and Chapter one, “Late-Night Pleasure Garden for People of Color,” in Marvin McAllister, White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color (2003);

Watch: “The African Americans Many Rivers to Cross, Episode 2 The Age of Slavery” on youtube.


Questions: How is the black public sphere distinct from the white public sphere in early nineteenth-century America? What was the social and political importance of black dandyism?


Week Two

Jan. 14, Mon.The African Theatre of William Alexander Brown; Ira Aldridge

Read: Michael Warner, “A Soliloquy 'Lately Spoken at the African Theatre': Race and the Public Sphere in New York City, 1821," American Literature 73.1 (March 2001): 1–46; Ira Aldridge, The Black Doctor(1847) (electronically available); Anna Mae Duane, “‘Like a Motherless Child’: Racial Education at the New York African Free School and in My Bondage and My Freedom,” American Literature82.3 (2010): 461-88.


Questions: Why did William A. Brown choose Richard III for his company’s inaugural production? What social, political, and artistic goals did the African Theatre hope to achieve?


Jan. 16, Wed. The Haitian Revolution and theMinstrel Show

Read:“American Minstrelsy in Black and White,” in Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch A History of African American Theatre (2003)

Watch: PBS Egalite for All:Tousssaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution(available on youtube)


Questions: What was the social function of blackface minstrelsy? What were its effects on the future of African American performance?

Week Three

Jan 21, Mon. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. No class.


Jan. 23 Wed.Sentimentality and the Abolitionist Movement: Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Watch:The Abolitionists, PBS documentary ( (also available on youtube in three parts)

Read: George Aiken, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (electronically available, UW library); and Margaret Cohen, “Sentimental Communities,” in The Literary Channel: The International Invention of the Novel, 106-32.


Questions: How did the abolitionists represent African Americans? Why did they construct these particular representations? Why was sentimental rhetoric so effective in persuading white people around the world for the need of emancipation?


Week Four

Jan. 28, Mon. African American Performances of Escape

Read: William Wells Brown, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, 1858; and Daphne Brooks, “The Escape Artist: Henry Box Brown, Black Abolitionist Performance, and Moving Panoramas of Slavery”


Question: How did African American artists use the dominant strategies of sentimentality and panoramas in their own performances?


Jan 30, Wed. The Harlem Renaissance

Watch: The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, episode 4, on youtube

Read: W.E.B. DuBois, “Criteria of Negro Art”; and W.E.B. DuBois, The Star of Ethiopia (electronically available, UW library);


Question: Compare Du Bois strategies for representation of blackness in The Star of Ethiopiato those of dandyism, studied at the beginning of the course? How does the change (or similarity) in strategies reflect the politics of the Harlem Renaissance compared to those of dandyism?


Week Five

Feb 4, Mon. The Harlem Renaissance, cont.

Read:Alain Locke, “The Negro and the American Stage” and “The Drama of Negro Life”; Willis Richardson, The Chip Woman’s Fortune (electronically available)


Questions: The intellectual rivalry between DuBois and Alain Locke marks the beginning of a debate in African American performance that continues to this day: should a political stance be explicit in black performance or shall politics be implicit in it? Which approach better furthers the tasks of racial uplift and racial justice? Is this an either/or question, as these two intellectuals thought it was, or is it a both-and question?


 Feb 6, Wed. Test One


Week Six

Feb 11, Mon. Lynching and Performance

Read: Angelina Grimke, Rachel (electronically available, UW library); Harvey Young, “The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching,” Theatre Journal 57. 4 (2005): 639-57.


Question: Scholars have argued that lynching is a performance of whiteness. If so, what are the performance and spectatorship conventions of lynching, and how do they compare to the conventions of minstrelsy?


Feb. 13, Wed.  Black Broadway: In Dahomey

Read: Paul Laurence Dunbar, In Dahomey(1902) (electronically available, UW library);

Monica White Ndounou, “Early Black Americans on Broadway,” in The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre (2013);


Questions: What is the historical significance of In Dahomey? What critique of racial relations does it articulate?


Abstracts due today!


Week Seven

Feb. 18, Mon. President’s Day. No Class.


Feb. 20, Wed. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

Read: Michelle Gordon, “‘Somewhat like War’: The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black Liberation, and A Raisin in the SunAfrican American Review 42.1 (2008): 121-33.

Watch:Raisin in The Sun (1961) on youtube.


Question: Hansberry’s play remains popular with theatre audiences to this day. What explains its continuing relevance?


Week Eight

Feb 25, Mon. The Black Arts Movement

Drafts of research projects are due today!!!


Watch: African Americans Many Rivers to Cross Episode 5

Read: Amiri Baraka, Dutchman; Amiri Baraka, “The Revolutionary Theatre”; and James E. Smethurst, “The Black Arts Movement,” A Companion to African American Literature, ed. Jene Andrew Jarrett (2010), 302-14.

Question: Compare the representation of blackness in the art of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement? How do these two aesthetics reflect similarities and changes in the perception of the relationship between blackness and nation?

Feb 27, Wed. Women Playwrights and the Black Arts Movement

Read: Adrienne Kennedy, Funnyhouse of a Negro;

Watch: Selma ($3.99), available on

Question: How does Kennedy imagine blackness in Funnyhouse of a Negrocompared with to blackness in Dutchman?


Week Nine

March 4, Mon. African American Theatre and the Politics of History: Suzan-Lori Parks

Read: Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog(2001), “Elements of Style,” and “The Equation for Black People on Stage”


Question: How does Park’s experimental aesthetics perpetuate/digress from the aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement or the specific aesthetics of other female playwrights studied in the course?


March 6, Wed. African American Theatre and the Politics of History: August Wilson

Read: August Wilson, Jo Turner’s Come and Gone andThe Ground on Which I Stand;


Question: When August Wilson first presented The Grounds on Which I Standin 1996, his position was critiqued as outmoded. How do you evaluate it from our current political moment?


Week Ten

March 11, Mon. The Dream of a Postracial Society and The Black Lives Matter Movement

Watch: Young Jean Lee, The Shipmentat On the Boards TV

Read: Jeffrey C. Alexander, “Seizing the Stage: Social Performances from Mao Zedong to Martin Luther King Jr., and Black Lives Matter Today,” TDR 61.1 (2017): 14-42.


Question: Compare the strategies used in the Black Arts Movement to those of The Black Lives Matters Movement. What is old and what is new? How does history help illuminate the present?


March 13, Wed. Conclusion and Review

Research projects due today!


Finals week:

March 21, Th. Test 2



Catalog Description: 
Topics in drama, history, and criticism. See Time Schedule for specific topic.
GE Requirements: 
Diversity (DIV)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 9:03pm