Call to Restore the Classics at Selected
Glenda E. Gill
At the May 2007 Howard University Commencement Ceremony, my cousin, 22, received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre, Magna Cum Laude. Her emphasis was acting, but her vita showed no work in classical theatre. Her mother, well-educated and jubilantly delusional, asked me: “What do you mean by classical theatre?” I define classical theatre as those plays of quality that have withstood the test of time. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Miller, and Moličre come to mind, along with O’Neill. The period of time needed to determine whether or not a work is a classic may be 50 years. Has it been produced or anthologized on a sustained basis 50 years or more? My cousin studied mainly black contemporary theatre at Howard.
How many other students at America’s 110 HBCUs today even know the name Eugene O’Neill? Why not? Floyd Sandle, Professor of Theatre at Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana, believed that an organizational structure that would hold all 110 HBCUs together was the answer. In his 1959 Louisiana State University dissertation, “A History of the Development of the Educational Theatre in Negro Colleges and Universities from 1911 to 1959,” Sandle wrote:
To my knowledge, no such organization inviting all HBCU drama groups to stage scenes or one-acts at drama festivals now exists. From 1930 until the brain drain of the late 1960s, both drama groups Sandle mentioned actively existed on the majority of the historically black colleges in the nation. Each college or university sought to out-do the other in the drama festivals where such plays (or excerpts) as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler or Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan were popular entries. White universities have bought the African American stars for their faculties. Only two of the twelve African American members of the distinguished College of Fellows of the American Theatre remained their entire careers at HBCUs—the late Thomas E. Poag of Tennessee State University and Thomas D. Pawley, of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Ironically, the late Owen Dodson of Howard University was never included in the Fellows. I wonder why; he staged 161 classics.
As representative of many of the HBCUs, I have selected four universities which once put on mainly the classics, especially Eugene O’Neill. They and the directors of O’Neill’s plays are: Dr. Winona Lee Fletcher of Kentucky State University (later of Indiana University); Owen Vincent Dodson of Howard University; Dr. Thomas D. Pawley of Lincoln University, and Dr. Thomas E. Poag of Tennessee State University in Nashville.
Of the four directors, the best known in wider circles is Winona Fletcher, the 1993 winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Philadelphia Conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). Dr. Fletcher is also a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. Her career spanned 1951-1978 at Kentucky State U., and from 1978 to 1994 at Indiana University-Bloomington. She said to me on Labor Day, 2007: “I directed The Emperor Jones in 1969; it was one of the few black plays for which we could get scripts.” Betsy Morelock, archivist for the Winona Fletcher Papers at Kentucky State, wrote me:
Fletcher was an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith, a private HBCU in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In 1874, Howard University, the “Capstone of Negro Education,” began granting credit for theatre. In 1919, Thomas Montgomery Gregory founded the Howard Players. In the 1940s, Howard hired the now legendary Owen Dodson to head its theatre program. James V. Hatch, a Caucasian member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, wrote Dodson’s biography, Sorrow Is The Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson (U of Illinois P, 1993). Dodson held an undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Arts, from Bates College (1936) and a Yale MFA in Theatre and Drama (1939).
Between 1930 and 1970, Dodson put on an array of 161 classics at Bates, Yale, Spelman College (a highly respected college for African American women ranked no. 1 by U.S. News and World Report in the special issue on HBCUs) in Atlanta, Hampton Institute in Virginia, and Howard University. Dodson included professional actor, Gordon Heath, in his productions. Dodson’s five O’Neill plays (all mounted at Howard) include The Homecoming with an all-African American cast and 1865 costumes from Mourning Becomes Electra on August 4, 1944, an outdoor production, staged in front of Douglass Hall. One reviewer commented: “With dignity and majesty Electra assumed her mourning again and sent an audience of 1200 away with some of the feeling of serenity and high splendor that the Greeks must have had in their theatre . . . (Gordon Heath Papers, U. of Massachusetts-Amherst).”
Dodson’s The Great God Brown played to excellent reviews from March 7-12, 1949. On March 12, 1949, The Afro-American newspaper wrote a review titled “Howard Players Pleasing in The Great God Brown,” It read:
In this drama of a search for love and position, the black bourgeois audiences of Washington D.C. as well as the working class could identify with the masks O’Neill has the actors wear, since many people of color would be well-acquainted with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem:
We wear the mask
That grins and lies.
The struggle of Dion Anthony and William Brown is a universal one, not one limited to one ethnic group. Dodson also directed The Emperor Jones (July 25, 1953); the critically acclaimed Moon For The Misbegotten Sept, 23, 1960, and O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Dec. 5, 1963. Other HBCU directors also staged O’Neill.
Dr. Thomas D. Pawley, Professor Emeritus of Theatre and former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri and a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre strongly believed that the study of the classics was a good study in human relations. He said to me: “Mrs. Hazel McDaniel Teabeau directed O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon at Lincoln in 1938. She was the first black woman to earn a PhD in Speech, Rhetoric and Public Address at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1950.” (Tel. Int., August 12, 2007). Ninety years old during my 2007 interview with him, Pawley stated: “In 1940, I came to Lincoln and organized the Lincoln University Stagecrafters. The summer of 1947, I directed The Emperor Jones, building three sets for an out-of-doors production. Pawley continued in a letter of August 13, 2007:
Gary J. Williams, Professor Emeritus at Catholic University of America, calls The Dreamy Kid O’Neill’s darker brother. (Theatre Annual: A Journal of Performance Studies, Vol. 43, 1988, 3-14.)
Pawley also observed in his “Eugene O’Neill and Race Relations in America” (Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Winter, 1997, 1): “Eugene O’Neill’s canon of plays with black characters consists of six plays which fall into two geographic groups: the Caribbean plays, Thirst, Moon of the Caribees, both one acts, and The Emperor Jones. And those set in the United States, The Dreamy Kid, a one-act, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Iceman Cometh,” Pawley concludes his twenty-one issue page article saying that in those six plays, O’Neill drew black characters of the early twentieth century as realistically as he knew how. How accurately O’Neill portrayed the African American created controversy on and off college campuses. Producing the plays of white playwrights was the norm for theatre groups at HBCUs from 1875 – 1930s.
Dr. Winona Fletcher, Professor Emerita of Drama at Indiana U. – Bloomington wrote me: “I guess it comes down to the ugly fact that we were successfully brainwashed! It took a second World War to jolt many of us into an awareness of our own worth. Then some of us saw the need to pass on our own heritage.” (Personal correspondence with author. Feb. 11, 1994). Fletcher directed some black playwrights at Kentucky State University, including arranger/composer Hall Johnson’s famed Run, Little Chillun, for which she, a professional costumer, designed costumes in the late 1970s.
Tennessee State University’s Thomas Poag also put on black plays in the 1930s through the 1960s, but he also staged O’Neill. A rare black member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, Poag was the first African American in history to receive the M.A. and PhD degrees in theatre and drama. Poag’s M.A. was from The Ohio State U, awarded in 1935. His PhD was from Cornell (1943). He directed O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid and The Emperor Jones. Although Tennessee State University had photos and programs, they had only one date for these O’Neill productions. Poag and Dodson took black students on European tours, performing the classics in Scandinavia and other venues outside the U.S.
In thinking about the need to restore the classics at HBCUs, Mical Whitaker, Professor Emeritus of Theatre at Georgia Southern University, a non-historically black school, said of his experiences at Howard University from 1958-1961:
Whitaker, like Ossie Davis, took no degree from Howard, but went on to professional theatre and has performed major non-traditional roles such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and the title role in King Lear, the latter in Feb./March of 2008. Whitaker directed O’Neill’s Hughie in New York City. Howard, now, like most of the HBCUs, lists mainly black plays as part of its theatre season. A member of Howard’s English Department told me on September 7, 2007, that her freshman English reader contains a text using only black authors. She has no choice in text selection. She reaffirmed this March of 2008.
While Fletcher, Dodson, Pawley and Poag recognized the value of black playwrights, (with both Dodson and Pawley being playwrights as well as directors), many HBCUs did not, and put on only plays by white authors from the early to mid-twentieth century. A rethinking of the curriculum is essential in regard to racial balance of plays at all of our institutions.
In the early 1980s, I took an African American female friend to see Euripides’s The Bacchae in Milwaukee. She said of the actor we knew: “I did not know that Victor could sing,” as the curtain rose. My friend had never seen or heard of a speaking chorus. To my knowledge, every reputable historically white university theatre department offers a mix of the classics with the contemporary.
When I was Chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Tuskegee Institute (now University) in 1982, the now late African American Dean of Arts and Sciences ordered me to fire the one man in charge of Tuskegee’s Little Theatre, which has recently been torn down by the President. The director put on only black plays. Such an action in historically white universities would wipe out theatre seasons on college campuses in America. I had mixed emotions about the Dean’s edict, one being that the Tuskegee of Charles Winter Wood, a devotée and performer of the classics, was gone. The director put on Charles Fuller’s Zooman and The Sign and Langston Hughes’s Tambourines to Glory.
What has happened to the times of racially balanced quality lyceum programs at HBCUs such as I witnessed in growing up at Alabama A. and M. between 1944 and 1969? O’Neill, unfortunately, was not in my undergraduate experience, but many writers of the classics were. Esther Merle Jackson introduced me to O’Neill in 1984 in a postdoctoral summer, for me, at Wisconsin-Madison. Jackson, also another rare black member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, founded and chaired Clark’s Speech and Drama Department in Atlanta. Jackson was a specialist in O’Neill and is one of a handful of American blacks who has published on the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1936).
The world changed in the 1960s with assassinations, riots, sit-ins, and marches. The Kennedys, Evers, Malcolm X, and King all lay slain by an assassin’s bullet, Malcolm X, allegedly at the hands of other black people who reputedly did not agree with his changing from black nationalism to embracing all races and perhaps acknowledging all faiths. O’Neill discussed the changing social context in many of his plays—the ordinary man or woman suffering in a dignity - stripping world, often with budgetary constraints.
Budgetary constraints plague college theatre departments everywhere. At HBCUs, some theatre programs have been cut completely (Alabama A & M’s theatre is dark), cut as they were at some white universities, but most white universities now entertain at least one black play or one play about or by white women. The majority of HBCUs since the 1960s have excluded Eugene O’Neill and all who look like him on their stages. The faculties at HBCUs are now 40% white, and HBCU English departments often have 50% white faculty. The department I chaired at Tuskegee did twenty-six years ago, and there is an alarming decrease in black PhDs. More black men are in prison than in college—2.5 million, and any discussion of it brings on cries of black hate of white people, unfair to white folk. The prison industry is eroding the black male population and black male PhDs without question.
The current state of drama in HBCUs is unfortunate. Greek step shows now command an audience of 3,000 people, sometimes with police having to be summoned from surrounding counties to quell the mob. Why can we not watch a Greek step show in a civil manner and restore O’Neill’s plays, some of which are based on Greek themes. My mainly white students at Michigan Tech in the 2000s enjoyed O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms; a young black female student enthusiastically read the part of Abbie in a staged reading in class, and I believe learned something about human relations. As a whole, however, African Americans are no longer required to climb the language mountains as my generation was expected to, required to, and no excuses were tolerated. What I wanted was not entertained.
Samuel A. Hay published “The Death of Black Educational Theatre,” indicating that sixty-two HBCUs have no theatre. Twenty-four had one to three person programs. There were no graduate programs and only two HBCUs offer a major in theatre—Howard and Florida A. and M. (See Hatch & Hill). Univ. of Alabama just found 2.3 million for its football coach, but violence and ignorance in Alabama have been priority for as long as I’ve lived there. The eagle at Auburn (War Eagle) is in a cage that cost $11,000 in 1984. We could mount a production of Mourning Becomes Electra for that cost in 2008 money, of $30,000, plus for costumes/sets!
I, therefore, call for a restoration of the classics and the dark theatres at 12 of the historically black colleges in the United States, especially the work of Eugene O’Neill.
At a local Houghton, Michigan bar, my only black male student in American Drama read the part of the Negro gambler, Joe Mott, in The Iceman Cometh, and was moved to write a poem, “Ashamed,” speaking of Joe’s need to be white, in a really good staged reading with a Hirschfeld caricature of the play on each table, along with coffee or tea at 11:00am. The bar lost no liquor business.
O’Neill’s work exemplifies the virtues of the classics most academics value: universality, powerful language, and themes based on myths.African American students do what is expected of them. So do Asian and other students. Owen Dodson said that he taught the classics, including O’Neill, to cleanse the “mushy mouths” of southern black students (Hatch & Hill). Dodson hailed from Brooklyn. We must continue the legacy of the giants Esther Merle Jackson, Winona Lee Fletcher, Thomas D. Pawley, Thomas E. Poag and Owen Vincent Dodson. The world will have more depth, more compassion, better language skills and more vision. My 22-year old cousin would be infinitely better prepared for a broader based career in theatre.
I would like to thank the following people for assistance with the paper, "A Call to Restore the Classics at Selected Historically Black Colleges and Universities; For Example, Eugene O'Neill": Dave Lepse, Reference, Van Pelt Library, Michigan Technological University; Kim Puuri, Humanities, Michigan Technological University; Dr. Evelyn Fancher of Nashville, Tennessee, who secured the Thomas E. Poag papers; Sharon Hull of the Tennessee State University Library; Dr. Winona L. Fletcher and Dr. Thomas D. Pawley for interviews and source material; Betsy Morelock, Archivist at Kentucky State University Library; Joellen Elbashir of Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Collection; Stephen T. Robinson, Special Collections Assistant, W.E.B. DuBois Library, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, for access to the Gordon Heath Papers; the Lincoln University Library at Jefferson City, Missouri; and Yale University's Beinecke and Rare Book Manuscript Library. I thank Stephen Pluhacek for being my reader as the manuscript progressed, and Charles L. Ray, Jr., Dr. Joyce Pettis Temple and Sadie Garner for responses to the final oral presentation.
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