Part of a National Vision
The African American units of the Federal Theatre Project were part of national Director Hallie Flanagan's vision to create a pervasive and uniquely American theater. These troupes of African American performers were at once informed by their own communities and dictated to by Flanagan's national policies. They served to raise the cultural consciousness of blacks and whites alike. Negro units both exploded and reinforced racial stereotypes long present in American theater. Performers played to racially mixed audiences under almost exclusively white directors, who were considered to have better access to the power structure of what was largely a segregated American theater industry.
Historian Quintard Taylor estimates that in Seattle as many as 200 persons or about 5 percent of the black population in 1940 Seattle worked on various Negro Repertory Company productions during its existence. Negro Repertory Company actors mounted 15 productions and also collaborated with other Seattle units in racially integrated productions. Seattle's company was one of the few black units that lasted for the entire span of the Federal Theatre Project.
Florence and Burton James had long been interested in the work of the black amateur actors who mounted productions at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. These actors had participated in the James's production of In Abraham's Bosom at the Seattle Repertory Playhouse in 1933, and formed the basis for the Negro Repertory Company when Federal Theatre Project funding made the unit possible in January 1936. Burton James fought to bend rules requiring that members be professional actors, since his group of talented African American amateurs would normally not have fit project hiring restrictions.
Among the Finest
Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan believed Seattle's Negro unit to be among the best in the country. Historian Rena Fraden states that Seattle's Negro unit mounted some of the most experimental of productions of any Negro unit (Fraden, 177), and was considered by many to be the most interesting part of Seattle's Federal Theatre Project.
The unit's first production, Noah, a whimsical gospel chorus musical, opened on April 28, 1936. This was followed by Stevedore, a Marxist-themed piece of social realism concerning a black union organizer unjustly accused of raping a white woman. The cast was interracial. Audiences responded strongly, even, at one of the performances, spontaneously rising up and surging onstage to join the cast for the climactic finale.
Problematic for Seattle performers, who did not speak in dialect, was the white expectation that black roles required the use of black dialect. The Federal Theatre Project's West Coast Director, Gilmore Brown, wrote to inform Hallie Flanagan that actors in the Seattle Negro unit were being coached in black dialect for an upcoming production of DuBose Heyward's play Porgy. "This makes me wonder a little if our whole white approach to the Negro theatre question isn't wrong" (Fraden, 178). Florence James encouraged the actors to use their own natural speaking cadences, but in the end the production was cancelled because the performers and other members of the African American community found the material degrading and offensive.
The Seattle Negro Repertory Company actors educated their white directors about certain cultural stereotypes they could not in good conscience perpetuate. For example, Sarah Oliver Jackson, an actress whose grandmother had been a slave, balked at a "Mammy" costume she was issued for B'rer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. The character's red kerchief headgear "signaled slave without quotation marks" (Fraden, 178). Sarah Oliver Jackson remained active in the Negro Repertory Theatre throughout its existence. She pointed out that "All through the Negro Theatre, the head people in the theatre were white, and, of course, it was their type of idea of what the Negro theatre was about" (Mumford, 75).
On October 27, 1936, It Can't Happen Here, an anti-Fascist play by Sinclair Lewis, opened simultaneously in 21 theaters in 17 states to celebrate the Federal Theatre Project's first anniversary. In Seattle the Negro Repertory Company mounted the play, with the setting changed to Seattle's Central District and "emphasis laid upon the dangers of dictatorship to a minority group" (Flanagan, 121). The 1,500 people present opening night gave the play a standing ovation.
A key member of the Negro Repertory Theatre company was Theodore Browne. Browne attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx before settling in Seattle. He wrote Natural Man, a folk opera retelling the John Henry legend, among other plays produced by the unit. He wrote and adapted plays, and also helped with casting, coached the actors, and played leading roles.
According to theater historian Ron West, Natural Man and the later Go Down Moses were nationally significant in transforming derogatory stereotypes of blacks on the white stage. Browne wrote to the national headquarters justifying the Negro Repertory Company's choice of programming: "In Lysistrata, Stevedore, and Noah we present plays whose universal theme remains the same regardless of race or creed" (Flanagan, 304).
Women and War
Lysistrata, however, proved to be more challenging than WPA officials were ready to accept. The play, directed by Florence and Burton James, was set in present-day Ethiopia, which had recently been invaded by Italy. It opened at the Moore Theatre on September 17, 1936, with a cast of 50. The play, written by Aristophanes and adapted by Theodore Browne, describes the women of Athens withholding sexual favors in order to force their husbands to make peace with Sparta.
The Negro Repertory Company's production was widely praised in the local press. Nevertheless, state Works Progress Administration Supervisor Don Abel shut down the play after one performance. The District Herald reported: "The WPA decided today that Lysistrata, which the Greeks thought mighty good comedy when it was written 2000 years ago, was too risque for Seattle audiences and locked the doors of its theatre after one night's stand ... . The state administrator, who admitted he had never seen a rehearsal or performance, ordered it closed 'for the best interest of the WPA'" (Flanagan, 304). Abel's wife and his secretary had attended the opening night performance and found it "indecent and bawdy" (Taylor, 151). Some scholars have suggested that the fact that the Negro Repertory Company's production of Lysistrata depicted black women in empowered roles was more to blame for the cancellation than any actual indecency (West, 103).
During the summer of 1937, the Negro Repertory Company presented Swing on Down, a musical variety show. This production toured Civilian Conservation Corps camps, nursing homes, and state institutions throughout Western Washington.
The Jameses Resign
In June 1937 Florence and Burton James resigned from the Federal Theatre Project as a result of the public furor that had erupted over their production of Power, a Living Newspaper about the then highly controversial subject of publicly owned utilities.
The Negro Repertory Company was folded into the other Seattle Project units, which were housed in the former Royal Theatre movie house at 1319-23 Rainier Avenue. Hallie Flanagan's former Vassar College friend, Esther Porter Lane, arrived in Seattle and assumed charge of the unit. The project was retrenched, with focus shifting to less controversial children's programming and vaudeville productions in the parks. The unit mounted the first African American production of George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and The Lion, directed by Edwin O'Connor, and a vaudeville piece called The Pursuit Of Happiness.
The Negro Repertory Company produced Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, a children's show with an original score by project member Howard Biggs, as well as an original choral piece with patterned dance movement called An Evening with Dunbar, which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer proclaimed "Good enough to be copied all over the country" (Flanagan, 309). The company also presented a version of The Taming of the Shrew, also with original music by Howard Biggs.
Criticism of the Federal Theatre Project began to mount in Washington, D.C. The Project was attacked as pro-union and pro-Communist. The year 1938 saw 20 percent cuts to the Federal Theatre Project's budget. Then, on June 30, 1939, Congress eliminated funding entirely and closed the Project nationwide. The very existence of the Negro units had drawn heavy Congressional fire and contributed to the Project's downfall. In the words of historian Rena Fraden, "The idea of autonomous Negro units, leading to a national Negro theatre or a fully integrated American theatre, including whites and blacks equally, threatened the status quo" (Fraden, 199).