An essential historical overview of African American theatre organizations in Texas’s five major cities, from antebellum productions to the present, that chronicles the remarkable stories of visionary playwrights, actors, and producers who shaped a vibrant, evolving cultural aesthetic.
From plantation performances to minstrel shows of the late nineteenth century, the roots of black theatre in Texas reflect the history of a state where black Texans have continually created powerful cultural emblems that defy the clichés of horses, cattle, and bravado. Drawing on troves of archival materials from numerous statewide sources, Stages of Struggle and Celebration captures the important legacies of the dramatic arts in a historical field that has paid most of its attention to black musicians.
Setting the stage, the authors retrace the path of the cakewalk and African-inspired dance as forerunners to formalized productions at theaters in the major metropolitan areas. From Houston’s Ensemble and Encore Theaters to the Jubilee in Fort Worth, gospel stage plays of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, as well as San Antonio’s Hornsby Entertainment Theater Company and Renaissance Guild, concluding with ProArts Collective in Austin, Stages of Struggle and Celebration features founding narratives, descriptions of key players and memorable productions, and enlightening discussions of community reception and the business challenges faced by each theatre. The role of drama departments in historically black colleges in training the companies’ founding members is also explored, as is the role the support of national figures such as Tyler Perry plays in ensuring viability. A canon of Texas playwrights completes the tour. The result is a diverse tribute to the artistic legacies that continue to inspire new generations of producers and audiences.
- List of Illustrations
- Part I. Setting the Stage: Early Work and Overview
- Chapter One. Black Theatre in Texas: From the 1800s
- Part II. Their Place on the Stage: Representative Organizations
- Chapter Two. San Antonio: A Core Venue in the Alamo City
- Chapter Three. Austin: Artistic Collaboration in the Capital City
- Chapter Four. Dallas: Engaging the Community
- Chapter Five. Fort Worth: Joy in the Theatre
- Chapter Six. Houston: Black Theatre on Main Street
- Plays by African American Texans
- Select References
Theatre is not merely a collection of crafts, a branch of literature, a collaboration of techniques, or even an all-encompassing art form. It is life. It is people. It is people making art out of themselves.
Robert Cohen, Theatre, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005)
Stages of Struggle and Celebration: A Production History of Black Theatre in Texas is an overview focusing on contemporary theatre organizations in five major cities in Texas: San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. It highlights the production history of these theatre groups and their body of work as representation, affirmation, and celebration of African American cultural life. Black theatre productions throughout the state bring to the fore cultural experiences, stories, and rituals as a way of remembering and passing them on—race memory. Then too, these cultural reenactments reveal how reactions to outside forces impact actions and ideas.
The narrative includes not only a definition of black theatre but also its history in Texas from the slavery period to the contemporary period, while demonstrating its kinship to black theatre elsewhere in the United States. Though the book is a comprehensive historical narrative of black theatre in Texas, it does not cover black theatre in every city, town, or county or its instances in high schools, churches, small community centers, and the like. Like other histories of its kind, it concentrates on the work in the major urban centers.1 Thus, this narrative is not all-inclusive, nor is it intended to be. The groups chronicled in this study are the most prominent and best documented to date.
Though the artistry of black theatre in Texas is influenced by national trends and key productions in major cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle, the purpose of this study is to show the work as it is and was realized in the Lone Star State. It not only reveals the contributions of these groups to the artistic output of the nation but also demonstrates the lively arts outside of the major commercial theatre centers—where most people have an opportunity to participate and attend. Black theatre’s uniqueness is not so much in its originality but in its existence, that is, its influence on, reflection of, and contribution to the whole. It should be archived, chronicled in articles, books, and exhibits, and remembered.
In History of the Theatre,2 Oscar Brockett notes that although each theatre historian’s approach differs somewhat, a few basic patterns are discernible. Each historian strives to:
. . . [emphasize] theatre as a social and cultural institution and . . . concentrate on the theatre as a reflection of the ideological assumptions of a particular time and society.
. . . emphasize the role of individuals . . . adopt a biographical approach and describe the lives and works of those persons who were most prominent, innovative, or influential in the theatrical activities of specific times and places.
. . . emphasize the process by which theatrical performance comes into being . . . concentrating on procedures followed from origin to the completion of a theatrical production and how these characteristic approaches have changed from one time and place to another.
. . . describe and analyze the product—the performance in the theatre as seen by the audience. Here the principal concern is with the art object, and consequently considerable attention may be paid to stylistic, formal, and aesthetic questions and to audience response.
The historiography of Stages of Struggle is a combination of three of the four approaches (1, 2, and 4). Black theatre organizations in Texas are looked upon as social and cultural institutions reflecting the aesthetics of black theatre in Texas and the nation. The aesthetics of each institution is reflected in its mission, choice of repertoire, and success with the local audience. These institutions are cultural emblems; their cultural life comes through in the documents and voices that tell their stories. This study also focuses on key individuals. Thus, the narrative includes the biographies of the founders and artistic directors, and frequently identifies directors, playwrights, actors, and technicians. It is a people’s story. We want the people to see themselves in this work; however, we have attempted to be prudent in listing names. In addition, this study also includes analysis of the product, the work of art, created by contemporary black theatre organizations. Showcasing the seasons of these groups documents their productivity. Because we understand the need to streamline the analysis, we highlight a select number of memorable productions for each featured black theatre institution. Though we would like to discuss every production for every year, we have instead provided a complete list of their seasons, as of the completion of this study, in chronological order at the end of each chapter.
The book is organized into two sections with six chapters and an afterword. Part I, “Setting the Stage,” includes chapter 1. It begins with definitions and surveys the history to the present. Part II, “Their Place on the Stage,” includes chapters 2 through 6. This section analyzes the history of black theatre in the major cities in Texas through the discussion of past and current representative black theatre organizations. Chapter 2 presents the San Antonio story. It covers the Carver Community Cultural Center (1912), the earliest identified black theatre institution in Texas, and the Wheatley Dramatic Guild Players (Hemmings Players) (c. 1913–1950s). It features the Hornsby Entertainment Theatre Company (1987–present) and The Renaissance Guild (2001–present). Chapter 3 presents black theatre activities in Austin, the state capital of Texas. The chapter notes the contributions of the Afro-American Players, Inc. (1970s), Black Arts Alliance (1980s), and the Austin Theatre Project (1986–1993). It features the work of ProArts Collective (1993–2012), the longest-running contemporary group in the city. Chapter 4 takes the reader to Dallas, chronicling the work of the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre (1973–1979), African American Repertory Theatre (2008–present), Dallas Drama Company (1985–1995), Soul Nation (1995–1996), Soul Repertory Theatre (1995–2004), Vivid Theatre Repertory Company (1990–c.1996), Ebony Emeralds Classic Theatre Company (2006–2008), and Blacken Blues Theatre of African American Life (1998–present). The chapter focuses on The Black Academy of Arts and Letters (1977–present), the longest-running and most financially established of all of the groups. Chapter 5 reviews two black theatre troupes in Fort Worth—the precursor, the Sojourner Truth Players (1972–1991) and the currently running Jubilee Theatre (1981–present), the featured organization. Chapter 6 chronicles the Houston story with the Houston Negro Little Theatre (1931–c.1939), Houston Ethnic Arts Theatre (1979–?), and the Urban Theatre (1969–1980). It features the Encore Theatre (1993–present) and the Ensemble Theatre (1977–present), both currently producing. The analysis in each chapter is chronological from group to group, showcasing the earliest activities to the most recent. Most attention is given to the featured companies with a discussion of their beginnings, founders, mission, memorable productions, and perseverance and survival strategies. The Afterword includes final thoughts on the nature of the work and its significance, challenges, and future research potential.
The book’s content is shaped by the uniqueness of the organizations in the study and the documentation available for them. The discussion focuses on the evidence found mainly in programs, photos, reviews, and interviews. Some currently running institutions kept excellent records, while others kept only a few key documents. We are indebted to all of the institutions that opened their files to us and told us their stories in their own words and to the works of numerous theatre historians for ideas for the basic structure and developmental strategies of our narrative. These works include James Hatch and Erroll Hill’s The Theatre of Black Americans (2003), Hatch and Ted Shine’s Black Theatre USA (1996), Sam A. Hay’s The Theatre of African Americans (1994), Leslie Sanders’s The Development of Black Theater in America (1989), Sue Dauphin’s Houston by Stages (1981), and Oscar Brockett’s History of the Theatre, 10th ed. (2008).
This text lays the groundwork for future research on black theatre in Texas. The scholarship on theatre is vast; numerous scholars have written histories of black theatre, but the history of black theatre in Texas is a unique study that has received little or no attention in previous texts. Thus, most of the documentation comes from primary sources. We examined more than three thousand documents, nine hundred photos, and numerous DVDs and VHS tapes. The theatres have continued to produce as we worked, so the opportunity to continue to document the work will be available for future scholars. Texas State University in San Marcos is establishing an archival presence for the documents accumulated on site in its Alkek Library Wittliff Collection; in addition, repositories in all of the cities represented in this study have agreed to archive the work of these groups, with documents to be housed at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s (UTSA) archives at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, Prairie View A&M’s John B. Coleman Library just outside of Houston, the Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin, the Fort Worth Public Library in Fort Worth, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters’ archival repository in Dallas, and the University of North Texas.
This historical analysis of the history of black theatre in Texas will be of value to graduate and undergraduate university and high school students. It will be a research source for scholars of theatre and performance history (dramaturges, theatre critics, and historians), and readers interested in cultural, ethnic, African American, and Southwestern studies. The market encompasses university theatre and English departments, theatre companies, university and public libraries, and general readers. It will be a resource for future studies by American and international researchers in the fields of black studies, literature and drama, and also for playwrights, producers, directors, actors, and theatrical organizations.
“Sandra M. Mayo and Elvin Holt have put together the definitive book on black theatre in the Lone Star State…this is an important and wonderful book.”
Texas Books in Review
"Black theatre in Texas presents a significant challenge to the narrative of Texas’s own cultural identity, which is dominated by violent stories featuring white male heroes, often to the exclusion of minoritized people. Thus, Mayo and Holt create space for a new narrative, one that places black artists at the center of the cultural development of Texas."
Journal of American Drama and Theatre