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What’s on Stage?

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, March/April 2001 | Volume 22, Number 2

The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson

by Sandra Shannon

Using poetry, the blues, and Romare Bearden’s art, August Wilson fuses elements of African American culture into his dramatic biography of African Americans. Of his projected cycle of ten plays, Wilson has completed more than half—Jitney!, Fullerton Street, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, and two Pulitzer Prize-winners, Fences and The Piano Lesson. Wilson is also a recipient of the National Humanities Medal.

Sandra Shannon, professor of African American literature at Howard University, introduces Wilson’s “dramatic agenda,” traces his artistic development, and explores his political commitment to African American writing. Her book, which received $30,000 in NEH funding, offers a fifty-year Wilson chronology and an interview with the playwright. The interview allows the reader to hear Wilson speak on topics such as the inspiration for his plays, his twenty-six years of writing poetry, and his decalogue, which he views as the “autobiography of myself and my ancestors.”

African American Theatre Directory: 1816-1960

by Bernard L. Peterson, Jr.

Beginning with the creation of William Brown’s African Company, the first African American theater group, Bernard L. Peterson’s reference book takes the reader through 145 years of theater history. Milestone groups such as the Williams and Walker Company, the most successful turn-of-the-century musical-show troupe, are highlighted with lists of performers and directors, and brief show synopses. For example, the Directory explains that Williams and Walkers’s In Dahomey, their longest-running show, was an unprecedented presentation of native African elements.

Other entries deal with influential individuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, who is credited with founding small theater groups in the 1920s and 1930s and with aiding the creation of a black drama corpus by publishing plays by black authors in Crisis and Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. The directory also traces the history of cultural icons such as the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The entries cover five hundred African American theatrical organizations, companies, and performing groups, and more than two hundred black-oriented or black-controlled theaters, halls, and performance spaces. The book also lists performing groups by type, such as minstrel companies, community theater groups, and academic stage organizations. Peterson received $30,000 in NEH support for the project.

“The American Playwright 1920-1950,” annual seminar for college teachers

Professor Howard Stein begins most courses with the opening line of Robert Auletta’s play Alberta Radiance in which Alberta says, “I have this human life to live, and I don’t know what to do with it.” Stein explains that he sees drama as a test of one’s humanity. For ten years, Stein has led fifteen college teachers in studying early-twentieth-century playwrights in a six-week summer seminar at Columbia University. The class examines two works apiece from six major playwrights—Rachel Crothers, Langston Hughes, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams—attends Broadway shows, and meets with actors to discuss their roles. Most recently, Stein brought his class to see the Broadway staging of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and Tennessee Remembered, featuring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. The seminar group met with Brian Dennehy to discuss his leading role in Death of a Salesman, and with Kevin Spacey to talk about The Iceman Cometh. Stein received an NEH grant of $117,313 for the seminar.

“When the tyrant of Syracuse asked how he could discover what Athenians were like, Plato advised him to read the comedies of Aristophanes,” says Stein. “If someone wanted to know what Americans were like in the first half of the twentieth century, I would recommend to that person, read the playwrights from 1920 to 1950.”

Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays, published by the Library of America

As a young man, Eugene O’Neill worked as a stage manager, actor, tramp, reporter, muleteer, and sailor. When his roaming was stalled by a case of tuberculosis, he spent his sanatorium confinement reading Ibsen, Wedekind, and Strindberg. He took up playwriting soon after, and by the end of his life had authored more than four dozen plays, won four Pulitzer Prizes, and was the first American dramatist awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In a playbill for the Provincetown Players, the first company to produce one of his plays, O’Neill writes, “We have taken too many snapshots of each other in graceless position; we have endured too much from the banality of surfaces.” He concludes, “Truth, in the theatre as in life, is eternally difficult, just as the easy is the everlasting lie.”

The Library of America’s three-volume edition of O’Neill’s plays offers the complete, authoritative versions of his fifty plays; the only short story O’Neill published, “Tomorrow,” a companion to The Iceman Cometh; The Personal Equation and More Stately Mansions, both of which remained unpublished until 1988; and Chris Christopherson and its rewrite, Anna Christie, side-by-side. The edition was funded with a $160,000 NEH grant.

Langston Hughes: the Man, His Art, and Its Continuing Influence, edited by Emery Wimbish

While working in a Washington, D.C., hotel, the young Langston Hughes caught a glimpse of poet Vachel Lindsay in the dining room. Hughes put three of his poems beside Lindsay’s plate—and by the next day, Lindsay’s discovery of “a Negro busboy poet” had made
the newspapers.

In his more than forty-year writing career, Hughes established himself as a poet, dramatist, writer of short fiction, translator, activist, and social critic. Langston Hughes, a collection of essays resulting from an NEH-sponsored public conference series, treats such topics as Hughes’s connections to blues and gospel, his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, and the ways in which his work addresses race and gender. The series at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, received a $70,000 grant from NEH.

Of the sixty-three plays Hughes wrote or co-wrote, about a dozen were published—among them Mulatto, Simply Heavenly, Tambourines to Glory, and the lyrics for the opera Street Scene. Concerned with portraying the common experience of black America, Hughes wrote plays on topics such as African American social history and the 1930s labor movements. An educator, mentor, and literary leader in the Harlem community, Hughes also translated the poems of Federico García Lorca and Gabriela Mistral, and wrote a regular column for the Chicago Defender and the New York Post.

Tom: the Unknown Tennessee Williams

by Lyle Leverich

How did the shy, introspective Thomas Lanier Williams become Tennessee Williams, celebrated Southern playwright? Leverich’s biography— the only one Williams authorized—not only delves into the formative decades of Williams’s life, but definitively resolves the question of how he got the moniker “Tennessee.” To enter a contest for writers twenty-five and under, twenty-eight-year-old Williams adjusted his birth date and mailed his entry from his grandparents’ address in Memphis, disguising himself as “Tennessee.” He won five hundred dollars, enabling him to leave home and pursue his writing, and his new persona was created.

Based on letters, diaries, unpublished manuscripts, and family documents to which Leverich had exclusive access, Tom recounts the development of the playwright who would go on to write twenty-five full-length plays, dozens of short plays and screenplays, two novels, sixty short stories, and more than one-hundred poems. He won Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and many of his plays were made into films, including The Glass Menagerie and Night of the Iguana. Williams once described his characters as a “little company of the faded and frightened and difficult and odd and lonely”; and he felt that he was one of their kind. On the occasion of Williams’s death, Arthur Miller said, “For a while, the theater loved him, and then it went back to searching in its pockets for its soul.” Leverich received $30,000 in NEH support to complete his two- volume biography.