CONTINUUM: The Journal of African Diaspora Drama, Theatre and Performance  ISSN 2471-2507
Volume 4 Number 1
 - August 2017

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They Speak, Who listens?

 by Barbara Molette



During the 1970’s, playwriting in the United States was still thought of as primarily a man’s game, but change was imminent. Barbara Molette’s passionate editorial advocated for greater opportunities for Black women playwrights to have their voices heard in their own communities and beyond, on their own terms. While providing a historical perspective on African American women playwrights, Molette also limned the struggles of now-iconic playwrights Alice Childress and Lorraine Hansberry to get their works staged and properly critically evaluated.

Editor’s Note:  The following italicized statement preceded Molette’s article as published in Overture:  A Black Theatre Annual, 10th Anniversary Edition.  This publication was presented in conjunction with the AUDELCO (Audience Development  Committee) Awards in Harlem each year since 1973.

Editor’s Note:  This article was first published in the final issue of Black World.  It raises questions and discusses and issue that has yet to be resolved within the theatre movement.

“The media brokers will not present informative entertainment of the exposition of truths that might be of some use to an oppressed group of people in reducing their oppression, especially if this feat is accomplished in a manner that is absorbing enough to hold the attention of millions of people.”


Who hears what Black women playwrights have to say? Very few people.   A friend said to me recently,  “Why is it that playwrights try to say everything in one play—they write like they'll never write another play." I replied, "It's not that we'll never write another play, but we may never have the chance to be heard again."

Playwrights are at the mercy of various media brokers. Most of these brokers are white males. They are producers of live theater, publishers of printed matter, manufacturers and distributors of films, and people who manufacture and disseminate dramatic materials in the broadcast industry. These brokers represent the people with the real power and with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  They are concerned with preventing certain kinds of truths from being exposed in certain ways. They consider print to be less dangerous than live theater, live theater less dangerous than film, and film less dangerous than radio and television.  Truths exposed in a news format are considered less dangerous than if shown in a dramatic format.

Alice Childress Schomburg Center BlackPast2The percentage of people who read material containing serious ideas is miniscule compared to the total population. The number of people who read nonfiction work is negligible. The price of a ticket to a cinema usually costs less than a ticket to the theater, and distribution of film matter is more widespread. Thus, it is in the broadcast industry, the most popular vehicle of mass media, that people in control have to be most careful that "subversive" ideas are not articulated, and Watergate has shown that people in power define the word "subversive" in ways that serve their own interests.

The media brokers will not present informative entertainment or the exposition of truths that might be of some use to an oppressed group of people in reducing their oppression, especially if this feat is accomplished in a manner that is absorbing enough to hold the attention of millions of people. Decisions made by the brokers are not based upon any artistic, cultural or social criteria—at least those are not the primary motives. The main goal is to maintain the status quo. Money is a by-product.  Of course, these people want to make money, but the question is not whether to make money or not. The money will be made anyway, for there is no relationship between the quality of the product that is dumped in the public's lap and the amount of money that is made.

Most oppressed people are led to believe that the dispenser of the product is the man with the power. For example, the manager of a movie house can only choose among those movies made available for him to show. The public gets mad at him for showing ' 'bad" movies, as if there were some "non-bad" movies available to him. The manager of the movie house has a clear choice:  he either shows what is given him to show or he gets out of the movie exhibition business.  Similarly, in the decade between 1955 to 1965, in Atlanta, white restaurant owners believed—sincerely—that if they integrated their restaurants, white folks would quit eating there. Consequently, they, the restaurant owners, would lose money. By 1965, that myth had clearly been dispelled. Lester Maddox, along with other Atlanta restaurant owners now actively recruit Black customers at a financial profit.

If the truth were told about Black people and women, millions of viewers would not quit watching plays, motion pictures, and television. But the people who seek to prevent change do not do so out of any certainty that the change will be to their detriment. They do so because of the uncertainty. Ironically, the change is sometimes in their best interest, for the public's choices are based upon programming provided by people in power. Part of this program holds that "Black women's plays do not get done because they lack artistic merit.” That simply is not the case.

Black women have traditionally written positive images of Black motherhood and tried to promote mores that were humanistic.  But these works go against the stereotypes of Black women that have been perpetuated by white America.  To show a Black woman more concerned about her own child than her white mistress' child is heresy. To show a Black woman who treats her husband like a man is tantamount to revolution.  And Black women playwrights who ignore white folk in their plays are themselves ignored. Most published scripts by Black women playwrights are found in early issues of Crisis and Opportunity magazines. The editors of Opportunity, W.E.B. DuBois, Willis Richardson, and editors of a recent textbook—Ted Shine and James Hatch—are to be credited for courageous action in publishing most of the available scripts by Black women. In their anthology, Black Theatre, U.S.A., Hatch and Shine devote an entire section to Black Women playwrights.  Of course, the best way to understand why these works are considered "unacceptable" by those in power is to read the plays.

One of the earliest plays published by a Black woman was Rachel, performed in 1916 in Washington, D.C. The performance was sponsored by the Drama Committee of the NAACP. Angelina Grimke, in writing Rachel, expressed the intention of stirring up the people over the lynchings of Black men that were occurring in the United States.  The play is clearly propaganda in the best sense of the word. Well, that caused some problems for some folks in Washington, D.C. Some members of the NAACP felt that the stage was no place for propaganda, although a brief look at the drama of ancient Greece alone should prove the time-honored use of the stage for that purpose.  Some of those who agreed with the viewpoint of the NAACP went about setting up the Howard Players as a vehicle for presenting plays for their "purely artistic" quality.[1] Of course that meant a preponderance of plays by white playwrights were done, as if these did not contain their own propaganda, too. Here was a woman attempting to portray Black people as she knew they existed and not how the white playwrights of that era, such as Eugene O'Neill and Ridgely Torrence. envisioned them—exotic and inarticulate creatures.  One would think that most Black folks would have thanked her; instead, very few heard what Angelina Grimke had to say.

Those plays dealing with history as told by Black folks have been perennially shunted aside. It's not that Black playwrights have not written historical plays; it's that we have a difficult time getting them produced. May Miller, in 1929, wrote Graven Images.[2] In this play, written especially for eighth-grade students, she portrays a classic Black hero within a biblical context.  The Black son of Moses is faced with being the "only one" in a hostile environment. This little boy overcomes his obstacles and does so with dash and verve. In the end he has the rest of the children worshipping him—not by force—but by his ability to outthink them. This play could have served as an inspiration to the seven little children in Little Rock when they were in the minority and in a hostile environment.  However, Black children do not hear about Eliezer, the Black son of Moses. But they do hear about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Black women playwrights have also addressed themselves to such specific problems as those faced by poor Black women in rural areas, many of whom have successive childbirths because birth control information was and still is unavailable to them. The poverty cycle is usually passed from one generation to the next, particularly to the eldest girl who has to shoulder the burden of helping to care for the large family. They That Sit in Darkness, by Mary Burrill, was written in 1919 in an effort to dramatize this plight.[3]    Mary Burrill did not blame Black men, but rather the "system" that prevents the dissemination of medical information and help to those women who need it most. Her solution differed from the United States government's sanctioning of unscrupulous sterilization of unknowing Black women. But, how many hear Mary Burrill?

Lorraine HansberryThe role of the artist has also been to transmit the culture or to perpetuate the mores of a society.  If the work of the artist is interpreted by persons outside of the culture group, distortion occurs.  Heretofore, Euro-American scholars have claimed that only when the critic is able to maintain "aesthetic distance" is the criticism valid. Aesthetic distance is a myth, one more example of using artistic criticism to effect cultural hegemony.  Objectivity could only happen if one were brought up without any cultural bias—such as the mythical Romulus. However, that would leave one without any frame of reference in which to define works of art. By the mere fact we are brought up in culture groups means that we all have cultural biases. These cultural biases usually surface when we attempt to analyze and interpret art that is not within the purview of our culture.  So, even when the artist is heard, what the work purports to say is often jeopardized by critics who are not in the same cultural group as the artist.

Such is the case with A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. Euro-American critics have interpreted A Raisin in the Sun as affirming the role of the Black matriarch.  Ms. Hansberry made no comparison as to the relative strength of man vs. woman, nor is there any allusion to such. There is, however, a definite respect for age—for with age comes wisdom.  Lena Younger is the head of the household because she is the eldest person.  Not just because she is a woman. It is clear that, when her husband was alive, he was head of the household. The play is also not about "integration." The play is about survival. Survival of the Black family as a unit. Everyone at one time or another subjects their own ego for the survival of the family.  Lena Younger knows that in order for the family to survive, they had to better their living conditions—fresh air, more room, privacy, etc. Her husband worked hard to see to it that his family had the means to survive.  The concern is for the children through which the race will survive.

One play that Ms. Hansberry wrote that will, in all probability, never be heard is The Drinking Gourd. Written following the successful Broadway run of A Raisin in the Sun, it was intended to be produced for television.  It was commissioned by NBC.  However, in the play, Ms. Hansberry placed the blame for slavery squarely upon the shoulders of white folks and their greed for economic power.  The slaves depicted in The Drinking Gourd are not happy. The slave master at the end of the play dies groveling at the door of a shanty, while inside a mother ignores the slavemaster and tends to her man- child who had been blinded by the overseer.4  Contrary to the recent publication—Time on the Cross, by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman—that uses statistics to paint a glowing picture of slavery, Lorraine Hansberry showed that slavery was evil, inhumane, and the slaves [sic] barbaric. Ms. Hansberry wanted to tell the majority of people living in the United States that their parents were wrong in enslaving other humans. So far, no one has been able to hear her.

Black women playwrights have expressed their views on a myriad of subjects—war, integration, and love. Almost 10 years ago, Alice Childress' Wedding Band was optioned to open the season of the newly formed Atlanta Municipal Theatre.  The board of directors did not intend for the play to open. So they kept moving the play to a later time slot in the season. Finally, all of the money was spent.  Before rehearsals started, the board of directors declared the theater company bankrupt and dissolved it.  Consequently, the show has never been produced in Atlanta.  The following season, the same board opened a new season under a new name. Black folks in Atlanta had bought season tickets because they were promised that the theater was going to be integrated. Black people were members of the theater company.  A play about the South by a Black woman playwright had been found. The problem was that the play was about a love relationship between Black and white, and white folks were not ready to deal with that issue.

Theoretically, the right to speak is guaranteed by the Constitution; the right to be heard is not guaranteed and will continue to be thwarted.  Oftentimes, artists get compromised in an effort to be heard. Promoters and producers operate within the standards of "American Business Ethics.”  Their main concern is maintaining the status quo. The long range goal is to be able to continue to tap their sources of revenue.  Contrary to popular opinion, the television censor is not there to protect the American public's morality.  The censors are paid to avoid offending the sponsors. If the content is offensive to financial backers, the censors change the content so it will not be offensive to them.  Producers raise money and they want to stay in the good graces of their sources.  In order for the trend to reverse itself, Black women need to be in positions of power in the theater and mass communications media. There is a beautiful opportunity with the advent of women's studies on most college campuses for women to push for these roles.

Specifically needed are administrators of viable theaters. The real power in theater is management—controlling the budget. There are currently only a handful of Black women theater administrators, most of whom reside in New York. Viable regional Black theaters are needed too, as vehicles to produce plays that are talking to Black people in general and Black women in particular. Although there are a number of Black women in administrative positions with theaters outside New York, almost all of them work part-time.

Black women need to be producers, distributors and editors of films. I include editors because in the film industry what is said and the sequence of what is said is usually left in the hands of the editors.  The garbage that is produced today is deplorable.  There are no motion pictures that are directed toward expanding Black children's minds or honestly portraying Black characters in history. In 1915, Eloise Bibb Thompson wrote a film scenario entitled, "A Reply to the  Clansman,” in rebuttal to The Clansman by Dixon.  The scenario was considered by D. W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation) to be good box office attraction as well as a good story.  However, after saying he would produce the film with a $500,000 budget, Griffith later reneged on his oral commitment. Cecil B. DeMille stated that is would not be good box office even though it was a good story.' So, the scenario has never been filmed.  White movie producers will tell you that making movies is not about producing art, but making money.  Surely movies can be made about courageous and adventuresome women without resorting to the Coffeys and Cleopatra Joneses.

Of course, the continuation of Black culture cannot be made through performing arts alone.  However, for playwrights, the per- forming arts remain our most effective vehicle. Black women playwrights offer a unique insight into the Black experience.  Unless more theaters and other media facilities are available, only a small number of Black women playwrights will be heard.

[1] Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory, Plays of Negro Life (New York:  Harper Bros., 1927), p.414.

[2] Willis Richardson, Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro (Washington, D.C.:  Associated Publishers, 1930), p.109.

[3] James V. Hatch and Ted Shine, Black Theatre USA (New York:  MacMillan Publishing Co., 1974), p.178.


Editor’s Note:  The following is the biographical note that was published with the article:

Barbara Molette is a playwright and former teacher in the theater department of Spelman College in Atlanta.  The author of several articles and scholarly papers on drama, she first presented "They Speak: Who Listens? : Black Women Playwrights" in June 1974 at the Institute for Afro-American Culture for College Teachers, Kansas City, Mo.