Owning the Revolutionary Stage : How Black Theatres Embodied the Black Power Movement

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2020-04-22

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Abstract

This dissertation examine the sharp rise of black theatre companies during the Black Power Movement between the 1960 and 1980. The chaotic wake of the Civil Rights Movement left many in the black community disillusioned with integrationist objectives and instead drawn to militancy and autonomy. These values ignited both the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement. This project examines the intersecting histories of theatre, race, and art for social change during the Black Power Movement, interjecting a critical intervention into the studies of Black Power, Cultural Nationalism, and the broader history of American culture. Theatre historians of the Black Arts Movement have studied plays and playwrights in relation to the ideologies of Black Nationalism, but there has been no study of the social and economic implications of institutionalizing black theatre through research focused on theatrical companies and venues. By merely focusing on the texts, the field has neglected the radical and lasting work of the movement happening at the level of artistic institutions and property ownership. Throughout America’s history, property ownership has been signified as a privilege afforded to white Americans. These exclusionary efforts were meant to reinforce social hierarchies due to property ownership’s intersection with citizenship rights to participate in politics, economics, and culture. Prior to the 1960s, most black theatre was barred from mainstream white venues, instead relegated to schoolhouses and churches, which limited public accessibility and cultural ownership. Despite white endeavors to keep American proprietorship inaccessible and individually-based, black property ownership has been historically communal in a collective effort to gain access to these exclusive realms. This work is framed within a national paradigm with community theatre demonstrating local nuance. The most noteworthy theatres to emerge in this era are the Black Repertory Group in Oakland, California, the National Black Theatre in Harlem, New York, and the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, Texas. These three institutions most exemplify the tenets of the movement by owning their theatre facility, presenting black-centric art, instituting community initiatives, and surviving to the present day. Signifying Black Power as a cultural movement rescues the true aims of the movement and unveils the afterlife of radical black politics. This project further explores the emancipation of black women in these theatres as each case study theatre has succeeded due in great part to female leadership. While many organizations like the Black Panthers were short-lived, theatrical institutions persisted beyond the era as lasting legacies of Black Power and enduring, physical manifestations of the heart of the movement.

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Theater -- African Americans, African American theatrical producers and directors, African Americans -- History, African Americans in the performing arts, Black Arts movement, Black power

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