Historical Dictionary of African American Theater

  • Sandra M. Mayo

Historical Dictionary of African American Theater. By Anthony D. Hill, with Douglas Q. Barnett. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009; pp. 542

Historical Dictionary of African American Theater

Anthony Hill and Douglas Barnett provide theatre practitioners, scholars, and all manner of theatre enthusiasts with a comprehensive, up-to-date reference in their Historical Dictionary of African American Theater, which chronicles nearly 200 years of black theatre in the United States, from 1816 to 2008. Hill’s work is enhanced by his previous publications, such as Pages from the Harlem Renaissance (1996); Barnett’s experience as writer, director, actor, and founder of Black Arts/West in Seattle complements Hill’s more academic perspective. Hill and Barnett are the sole authors of the entries—a monumental undertaking.

A brief, informative chronology of African American theatre highlights (e.g., the debut performance of the Williams and Walker musical comedy team in 1899), as well as related historical moments (e.g., the 1922 House of Representatives anti-lynching bill) precedes the body of the Dictionary. The introduction covers four periods: the 1810s through 1940s; the 1950s and ’60s; the 1970s and ’80s; and, finally, the 1990s to 2008. This periodization aligns well with black theatre activity, charting its development from a small number of playwrights, theatres, and actors in the nineteenth century through an explosion of work during the Harlem Renaissance and the Second Black Renaissance during the 1960s and ’70s, to the ascendancy of August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, and Tyler Perry during the 1980s and ’90s and the avant-garde work of Suzan-Lori Parks in the millennium. Thus the introduction, and the Dictionary as a whole, best serves the contemporary scholar.


Defining the Humanities: African American Theater

The core of the work, the dictionary itself with over 600 entries, is perhaps more historically balanced than the introduction. Entries for individuals focus on biographical sketches and career highlights; oddly, the authors made the unusual, sometimes troubling choice to omit birthdates for living individuals. Given the complex multicultural background of African Americans, deciding who belongs in the dictionary must have been a challenge. The authors apparently aimed for inclusion, with entries on mixed-race and white writers who have made an exceptional contribution to the field (they do not, however, clarify their selection criteria for directors and actors). The entries on plays and musicals offer brief plot summaries and production histories. Although black musicals have long been popular, the Dictionary focuses on serious dramas, with only a sprinkling of comedies. Regrettably critics and designers are not included.

No special thematic development emerges from the selections; however, focusing on one type of entry at a time is illuminating. For example, salient parallels can be found in the struggles and triumphs of black theatre organizations from the earliest to the most recent. The entries on the Negro Ensemble Company, the New Lafayette Theatre, and the Free Southern Theatre are among the strongest in the collection.


Black Theater: the Making of a Movement

As a scholar who specializes in black theatre, I was informed and renewed on every page. I enjoyed refreshing my knowledge of the accomplishments of actor Canada Lee—whose success in Native Son on Broadway in 1941 was remarkable. Scanning down the page, I was also pleased to see an entry on Texas playwright and actor Eugene Lee, best-known for his performances in August Wilson’s plays (although this entry is not up-to-date in the listing of Lee’s plays and misrepresents him as a director). Some surprises include the detailed entries on Willis Richardson, Alice Childress (indeed, she gets more space than either Lorraine Hansberry or Suzan-Lori Parks), and Langston Hughes, detailing his dramatic output beyond Black Nativity, his most produced work. I was surprised to discover that Lynn Hamilton did not just play Redd Foxx’s girlfriend on Sanford and Son, but also had a long and successful career as a serious dramatic actor in the theatre and on screen. The entry on playwright Robert Alexander reminded me of his amazing output of first-rate works.

Discussions of recurring themes in black theatre, from assimilation, civil rights, religion, miscegenation, and slavery to protest, manhood, and women’s issues are added benefits of Hill…

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