GUEST BLOG: A History of Black Theater in Boston

RESILIENT STAGES: AN ENCAPSULATED HISTORY OF BLACK THEATER IN BOSTON

By Dawn M. Simmons

Black theater in Boston has a rich and resilient history that reflects the struggles, triumphs and cultural contributions of the African American community. Since the early 19th century, Black theater in Boston has played a crucial role in shaping narratives, challenging stereotypes, and fostering a sense of identity and belonging. This short exploration of local Black theater history highlights some of its key milestones, influential figures, and the enduring impact it has had on the local and national cultural landscape, and on me personally.

The roots of Black theater in Boston can be traced to the antebellum era when African Americans, many previously enslaved, began to organize and establish cultural institutions. Black communities in Boston started creating theatrical spaces, using churches and community halls to stage performances that told community stories and challenged racial stereotypes.

Book cover: The Escape by William Wells Brown

A recent publication of Brown’s most famous play. / Cosimo Books

As the 19th century progressed, one significant figure who helped build the community was William Wells Brown, a formerly enslaved man who became a prominent abolitionist, lecturer, and playwright. Brown’s play “The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom” (1858) is considered one of the earliest plays written by an African American. It’s important to note that Brown was born into slavery and had no formal education. He said he wrote “The Escape” “for my own amusement.” Although not widely produced during Brown’s lifetime, the play’s existence marked a crucial moment in the development of Black theater. Brown was a contemporary of Frederick Douglass and while he had success with his writing, his legacy was largely overshadowed by the famous orator. Brown died in Chelsea, Mass. in 1884. 

 

 

Maud Cuney Hare

Maud Cuney Hare / Wikipedia

Boston’s Black theater was shaped early in the 20th century by Maud Cuney Hare and her Allied Arts Players, Boston’s first African American semi-professional theater group. Cuney Hare wrote and directed the play Antar of Araby in 1929 about the pre-Islamic poet Antarah ibn Shaddād. A year later, a group called the Boston Players, a professional troupe following the path of the Allied Arts Players and modeled after New York City’s Lafayette Players, performed in and around the city. By showcasing the talents of African American actors and playwrights, the Boston Players gained popularity here and eventually secured production of a play in New York City by Paul Green.

A pivotal year for Black theater in America unfolded in 1935 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal innovation, the Works Progress Administration or WPA. A suggestion by Eleanor Roosevelt led to the establishment of a Federal Theater Project (FTP) under the WPA, to provide employment to actors, writers, musicians, and artists. FTP, alongside initiatives like the Federal Writers Project and the Federal Art Project, aimed to bring serious drama to the masses and shed light on the daily life of average Americans. The inclusion of so-called “Negro units” within the FTP marked a significant stride in the history of Black theater, recognizing and empowering African American artists on a national scale, and fostering creation of the Boston-based Negro Federal Theater of Massachusetts.

Government-subsidized theater marked a groundbreaking moment, providing pay for services to Black actors, writers and playwrights. By 1935, the Boston Players became integral to the Negro Federal Theater of Massachusetts, with figures like James W. Henderson and Ralf Coleman taking on key roles (and earning Coleman the unofficial title “Dean of Boston Black Theater” for his half century of service to the artform). 

Ralf Coleman with Stage Manager Lorenzo Quarles

Ralf Coleman with Stage Manager Lorenzo Quarles / Wellesley College

Playwright Ed Bullins

Playwright Ed Bullins / Don Hogan Charles, The New York Times

Fast-forwarding into the 1960s, the Black Arts Movement (BAM), a cultural and artistic crusade that sought to redefine and celebrate Black identity, gained momentum. Although founded and centered in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, BAM ignited cultural awareness across the country. Boston’s own Ed Bullins, an Obie- and Drama Desk Award-winning playwright – and a member of Harlem’s reestablished New Lafayette Theater – was a central figure in BAM. Before he passed in 2021, Bullins produced work in Boston under the auspices of Roxbury Crossroads Theatre.

Elma Lewis in her office

Elma Lewis in her office / Georgia Litwack, Emerson College Archives

In 1968, Boston cultural icon and educator Elma Lewis founded The National Center of Afro-American Artists, which became a cultural hub for the regional African American community, supporting various artistic endeavors, including theater productions.  The group’s Playhouse-in-the-Park in Boston brought nationally significant performers to Franklin Park and provided an outlet for students from the Elma Lewis School for Fine Arts, whose alumni included actors who went to perform on Broadway.

The same year Lewis expanded her cultural and theatrical footprint, influential theater artist and educator James Spruill (a teacher at Emerson College and Boston University) founded the New African Company. It was unique at the time, bringing plays highlighting the Black experience to white audiences, and presenting professional acting to Black audiences who might never attend Theater District performances. 

Spruill’s vision is striking to me in the way it mirrors Front Porch Arts Collective’s mission. “We are building a theater that attracts people who are not regular theater-goers,’’ he told the Globe in 1970, according to his obituary. “We are fighting dehumanization by TV, movies, and commercial theater.’’

Over the last two decades, contemporary Black theater in Boston has reflected an even more diverse range of voices, styles, and themes. The city has been home to numerous theaters and organizations dedicated to showcasing Black talent, telling diverse stories, and fostering community engagement.

Jacqui Parker and the cast of Front Porch Arts Collective's "Chicken and Biscuits"

Jacqui Parker and the cast of Front Porch Arts Collective’s “Chicken and Biscuits” / Ken Yotsukura

Soon would come Our Place Theater Project founded by Jacqui Parker, TriCord Productions, TYG Productions, Roxbury Repertory Theater, Up You Mighty Race, and New Urban Theatre Laboratory are among the notable organizations that have contributed to and strengthened Boston’s vibrant theater scene, telling stories and producing work that centers the Black experience.

Front Porch Arts Collective, now in its eighth season, was forged by a cohort of like-minded Black artists who work to create, through culture, a more tolerant and inclusive city.  Our namesake signifies the communal spirit we bring to each of our projects. By building on and adding to the history of Black theater in this city we love,  we are inspired to serve communities of color and produce art that is inclusive of all communities and welcoming to all audiences.

 

 

Dawn Simmons

 

Dawn M. Simmons is Co-Producing Artistic Director of Front Porch Arts Collective, an ArtsBoston Board Member, a NAACBoston member, and an award-winning director.

Recent Posts
Comments
  • Jack Tyler
    Reply

    This guest blog beautifully chronicles the rich history of Black theater in Boston. It’s a compelling narrative that honors the cultural contributions and enduring legacy of Black artists and performances in the city.

Leave a Comment