Drama 365 A
African American Theatre History
Class meeting times: Monday, Wednesday 9:30 -11:20
Location: Hutchinson 130
Instructor: Dr. Stefka Mihaylova
Office Hours: Friday 9:30-10:30 and by appointment; ZOOM
This course surveys key moments and movements in the history of African American performance. The major question it 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
• Gain an understanding of the relationship between aesthetics and politics by discussing play scripts in their historical context.
• At the university bookstore: A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry; Two Trains Running, by August Wilson; Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks
• All other plays are electronically available through the UW library website.
• Any additional texts will either be provided by Stefka or are available electronically through the UW library website.
• All documentaries are either free on YouTube or available through the UW library website.
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. (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.
Participation: 30% Every class session
Test One 35% Feb. 8
Test Two: 35% March 17
Participation (including discussion questions and response papers):
• Before every class, each student will have to prepare one discussion question or comment based on the readings and post it on the CANVAS site of the course by 8: 30 am.
We will adhere to the rules of engagement we agree upon in our class contract. In addition, all students are expected to adhere to the rules of engagement specified in the Student Conduct Code: https://www.washington.edu/cssc/for-students/student-code-of-conduct/
Tests 1 and 2: These take-at-home tests include a number of short questions, asking you to define terms and identify historical figures, and a longer essay question. Review questions will be distributed before each exam.
Criteria for Assessment:
A grades 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.
B grades 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. B work does not contribute original ideas and arguments, but relies only on the ideas and knowledge discussed in class.
C grades reflect work that shows inconsistent or partial solutions to problems, and understanding of basic ideas and methods.
D and F grades 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 before the designated class; unless they have been labelled recommended.
Jan 4, Mon. Introduction: Who We Are; What the Course Is About; Preparing a Class
Jan 6, Wed. Publics, Counterpublics, and Nations
Read: Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” and Benedict Anderson, Introduction to Imagined Communities
Watch: “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Episode 1: The Black Atlantic,” (UW library website)
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 11, Mon. Black Dandies
Read: Joanna Brooks, “The Early American Public Sphere and the Emergence of a Black Print Counterpublic,” The William and Mary Quarterly 62.1 (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) (electronically available through the UW library)
Watch: “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Episode 2 The Age of Slavery” (on UW Library website).
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?
Jan. 13, Wed. 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);
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. 18, Mon. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. No class.
Jan 20, Wed. The Haitian Revolution and the Minstrel Show
Read: “Douglas A. Jones, “Black Politics but Not Black People,” TDR 57.2 (2013): 21-37 (electronically available);
Watch: PBS Egalite for All: Tousssaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (available on YouTube)
Watch: “Blacks and Vaudeville: PBS Documentary,” on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=the+minstrel+show+documenta...
Questions: What was the social function of blackface minstrelsy? What were its effects on the future of African American performance?
Jan. 25 Mon. Sentimentalism and the Abolitionist Movement: Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Watch: American Experience: The Abolitionists: Part 1 (UW library website)
Read: George Aiken, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (electronically available, UW library);
Recommended: 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 of the need for emancipation?
Jan. 27, Wed. African American Performances of Escape
Read: William Wells Brown, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, 1858;
Recommended: 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 sentimentalism and panoramas in their own performances?
Feb. 1, Mon. The Harlem Renaissance
Watch: The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, episode 4, on UW library website
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 Ethiopia to 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?
Feb. 3, Wed. 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 8, Mon. Test One
Feb. 10, Wed. Lynching and Performance
Read: Angelina Grimke, Rachel (electronically available, UW library)
Recommended: Harvey Young, “The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching,” Theatre Journal 57. 4 (2005): 639-57 (electronically available through UW library website). This text contains graphic descriptions of violence against black people.
Question: How is the history of lynching (a frequent occurrence at the time Rachel was first produced) used to create a modern female black character?
Feb. 15, Mon. President’s Day. No Class.
Feb. 17, Wed. Black Broadway: In Dahomey
Read: Paul Laurence Dunbar, In Dahomey (1902) (electronically available, UW library);
Recommended: Monica White Ndounou, “Early Black Americans on Broadway,” in The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre (2013) (electronically available through UW library website)
Questions: What is the historical significance of In Dahomey? What critique of racial relations does it articulate?
Feb. 22, Mon. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun
Read: Lorraine Hansberry, Raisin in the Sun (1959)
Recommended: Michelle Gordon, “‘Somewhat like War’: The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black Liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun” African American Review 42.1 (2008): 121-33 (electronically available)
Recommended: Watch: Raisin in The Sun (1961) on YouTube.
Question: Hansberry’s play remains popular with theatre audiences to this day. What was its historical significance? What explains its continuing relevance?
Feb 24, Wed. The Black Arts Movement
The artists of the Black Arts Movement deliberately used aggressive, violent language. The texts for this class session contain aggressive language and graphic representations of racial, gender, and sexual violence.
Watch: African Americans Many Rivers to Cross Episode 5 (on UW library website)
Read: Amiri Baraka, The Toilet; Amiri Baraka, “The Revolutionary Theatre” http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/protest/text12/barakatheat... and Sonia Sanchez, Sister Son/ji
Recommended: James E. Smethurst, “The Black Arts Movement,” A Companion to African American Literature, ed. Jene Andrew Jarrett (2010), 302-14 (electronically available through the UW website).
Recommended: LaDonna Forsgren, chapter 3 from In Search of Our Warrior Mothers (electronically available through the UW website).
Question: Compare the representations 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?
March 1, Mon. African American Theatre and the Politics of History: Suzan-Lori Parks
Read: Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus (1996), “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 3, Wed. African American Theatre and the Politics of History: August Wilson
Read: August Wilson, Two Trains Running (1993) and The Ground on Which I Stand (1996) (electronically available)
Question: When August Wilson first presented The Grounds on Which I Stand in 1996, his position was critiqued as outmoded. How do you evaluate it from our current political moment?
March 8, Mon. The Dream of a Postracial Society and The Black Lives Matter Movement
Watch: Young Jean Lee, The Shipment at https://youngjeanlee.org/work/the-shipment/
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 10, Wed. Conclusion and Review
March 17, Wed. Test 2