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Despite prejudice and racism, black playwrights were known in the American theatre as early as 1823, when the African Grove Theatre and Company produced a play entitled King Shotaway, written by Mr. Brown (whose first name is uncertain). Also in the nineteenth century, William Wells Brown, a former slave, published The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom (1858), and William E. Easton's play Dessalines was produced in Chicago (1893). From the beginning, the concern of most black playwrights has been the realistic depiction of the black experience.
During the early twentieth century, there was an interest among white playwrights to picture blacks on the stage. A perfect example is Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920). Then in 1930, The Green Pastures became one of the most popular plays on Broadway; it was a black folk fable written b csfd sy Marc Connelly, a white playwright.
Additionally, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s introduced the first serious dramas about black people by black playwrights. Examples are Willis Richardson's A Chip Woman's Fortune (1923) and Garland Anderson's Appearances (1925). Though blacks had gained some experience on Broadway and in community theatres in the 1920s, it was the Federal Theatre Project, which grew out of the depression and provided work for unemployed theater people that gave a major boost to blacks in dramatic circles.
In the post-war years, some plays, both by black and white dramatists, were devoted to the injustice of discrimination, especially against black soldiers returning from the war to a segregated America. Theodore Ward in Our Lan' (1947) couches his criticism by showing the injustice shown to freed slaves during and after the Civil War; it was an obvious parallel to the black soldiers returning from World War II. Strange Fruit, produced in 1945 was a successful play that made a bitter commentary on racial segregation and intolerance. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s produced a plethora of plays about liberated blacks, written by black playwrights who were affected by the mood of the country.
Off-Broadway productions included William Branch's Medal for Willie (1951), Alice Childress's Trouble in Mind (1955), and Loften Mitchell's Land Beyond the River (1957). At the end of the decade, twenty-eight-year-old Lorraine Hansberry made her debut as a playwright with A Raisin in the Sun (1959). She was the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway and the first black playwright and youngest playwright to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The play was significant for other reasons as well. Not only were the playwright and the cast black, so were the director and some of the investors. More importantly the black community came out in large numbers to support this award-winning work that truthfully depicted a black working-class family and its ability to triumph over the debilitating conditions of the ghetto.
A Raising in the Sun was based upon Hansberry's childhood experiences; it portrays a black family's efforts to move into an all white neighborhood, just as her own family had done. Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), is about a white Jewish man with a truly open mind. His best friend, Alton, is a black Marxist who has decided that "as long as a lot of people think there is something wrong with the fact that I am a Negro-I am going to make a point out of being one." Sidney's wife, Iris, whom he calls a hillbilly, has two sisters; Gloria is a call girl, and Mavis is a racist and an anti-Semitic member of high society. Sidney's neighbor, David, is a gay playwright, who gets on Alton's nerves. In truth, other than Sidney who likes everyone, none of the characters like one another. Sidney acts as a referee in their disputes and tries to teach tolerance.
Unfortunately, before Hansberry could produce another complete play, she died at the young age of 34. Gerald Weales later wrote that "it is impossible to guess how she might have grown as a writer, but her two plays indicate that she had wit and intelligence, a strong sense of social and political possibility, and respect for the contradictions in all men . . .an inescapable talent that one cannot help admiring."
Among her unperformed works is The Drinking Gourd. In it, Hiram Sweet is a wealthy plantation owner who encourages a battle between the North and South because the Northern politicians make speeches about liberating the slaves. Once again, Hansberry's insurgent spirit shows through in the plot as the slaves rebel against their masters. In Les Blancs (The Holy Ones), two brothers return to the African hut in which they grew up. The older brother, Tshembe, has been travelling the world and has continually faced insults for his blackness and his belief in the need for African independence. He criticizes his brother, Abioseh, who is too caught up in becoming a Roman Catholic priest to care about problems concerning race or nationalism. Tshembe also feels like his younger half-brother Charlie, an American journalist, does nothing to speak out for the right causes; however, Eric, another half-brother, fights against the imperialist invaders.
Hansberry's final play, What Use Are Flowers, is about a hermit who departs civilization and lives in a cave. When he finally emerges, he realizes that there has been a nuclear war and only a few children are left alive. He feels an obligation to share the wonders of mankind with them and teaches the children basic English and important skills. Unfortunately, the children grow jealous of one another. He tells them, "You do not deserve to survive! Forget everything I have taught you! I renounce you again!" It is her final plea for all of mankind to live in peace and acceptance of one another.
Ruth: ...what kind of eggs you want? Walter: Not scrambled. (Ruth starts to scramble eggs) (p3)
Beneatha: I know he's rich. He knows he's rich, too. (p24)
Beneatha: I'm not worried about who I'm going to marry yet - if I ever get married. (p50)