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THE HOPE OF A NEGRO DRAMA WILLIS RICHARDSON IS it true that there is coming into existence in America a Negro Drama which at some future day may equal in excellence the American Negro Music? If the signs of the times do not point to such a thing, we must change their direction and have them point the right way; we must have a Negro Drama. There is no doubt that the Negro has a natural poetic gift; neither is there any doubt that a dramatist is fundamentally a poet; therefore, in order to help towards this, something may be done if some of our numerous poets will consent to rest from their usual labors for a while and lend a hand towards the writing of Negro plays. There need be no groping for subject matter. Here is a wealth of material, a mine of pure gold. I know of no field which is richer for the purpose of so democratic an art. But to attain this end, to obtain the wealth of this mine, will require diligent toil—the honest sweat of the brain. As Sir Arthur W. Pinero says in reference to playwriting generally: "When you sit in your stall at the theater and see a play moving across the stage, it all seems so easy and natural, you feel as though the author had improvised it. The characters, being, let us hope, ordinary human beings, say nothing very remarkable, nothing, you think—thereby paying the author the highest possible compliment—that might not quite as well have occurred to you. When you take up a playbook (if you ever do take up one), it strikes you as being a very trifling thing—a mere insubstantial pamphlet beside the imposing bulk of the latest six-shilling novel. Little do you guess that every page of the play has cost more care, severer mental tension, if not more actual manual labor, than any chapter of a novel, though it be fifty pages long." When I say Negro plays, I do not mean merely plays with Negro characters. Dramatizations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and Gustave Flaubert's "Salammbo" did not make Negro plays, although they had important Negro characters. Miss Grimke's "Rachel" is nearer the idea; still even this, with its Negro characters, is not exactly the thing I mean. It is called a propaganda play, and a great portion of it shows the manner in which Negroes are treated by white people in the United States. That such a work is of service will be acknowledged by anyone who will examine may of the plays of Shaw, Galsworthy and Brieux. Still there is another kind of play: the play that shows the soul of a people; and the soul of this people is truly worth showing. Mr. Ridgley Torrence, with the aid of Mrs. Norman Hapgood and Mr. Robert E. Jones, has accomplished it. "Granny Maumee," "The Rider of Dreams" and "Simon, the Cyrenian" are Negro plays; and we can never thank Mr. Torrence enough for such an excellent beginning of a movement we hope to continue. Miss Mary Burrill in "Aftermath" has also written a fine play; and these two examples prove the richness of the subject matter. An excellent model, and one by which we ought to profit, is the case of the Irish National Theater, the history of which may be learned elsewhere. My point is this: that with no richer material, and among a population of less than five millions, the Irish have built a national drama, encouraged and sustained playwrights, who are respected the same as are the other members of their profession in larger countries, and trained a company of actors who have made a decent living by their work on stage. Had it not been for the Irish Theater, perhaps such names as Synge, Yeats, and Lady Gregory, Ervine, Column, and Murray would never have been known among he world dramatists. As it is, they stand high and are honored. This being the case, what ought the Negro Drama in the United States be capable of among a population of fundamentally artistic people, which twice outnumbers the population of Ireland? The Negro has some natural ability for fine acting on account of his skill in imitation and on account of the mellowness of his voice. Take the sharp Caucasian "I" and compare it with the mellow "Ah" of Negro dialect. The "I" prolonged for a second changes to the sharper "E"; but the "Ah" prolonged continues its mellow sound unchanged. A similar difference may be seen in comparing the Caucasian "my" with the "ma" of Negro dialect. But even with these two assets to fine acting—mimicry and mellow tone of voice—there are yet other things necessary for the making of the finished actor; and not the least among these other things is skill in interpretation. Skill in interpretation is more the fruit of long and careful training than it is a gift of nature. This being the case, it naturally follows that if the Negro actor is given long and careful training, he will make his mark on the stage. Mr. George Jean Nathan in his volume, "Mr. George Jean Nathan Presents," has a chapter called "The Black Art" in which he pays many compliments to the Negro actor. One of the things he says is that the Negro is better fitted to play Shakespearean parts than the Caucasian, because the 338 A LETTER 339 sweetness of the Negro tones is so well suited to the poetry of Shakespeare. Mr. Nathan hates to acknowledge it, but he thinks that the part of Othello should always be played by a Negro actor, since a Negro actor is as well fitted for that part as a white actress is fitted for the part of Desdemona. These are very encouraging things, but Mr. Nathan spoils the chapter just as he spoils the book by trying to be funny. He says words to the effect that we are all "porters, waiters and cooks"; and at some place in the chapter he goes so far as to call us "coons." And as I was reading his book, I was thinking that among these "porters, waiters and cooks" perhaps there were some with a little vision, a few ideas and a sufficient knowledge of dramatic technique to make plays out of the interesting things in the lives of these "porters, waiters and cooks." I am very sure that all those broadminded people who are intelligently interested in the welfare and development of the Negro race in America will be delighted when we shall be able to send a company of Negro Players with Negro Plays across our own continent; and those intelligent people who have never been interested in us will surely give us a second thought when we send our Negro Plays and Players to show hitherto unknown things to the artistic people of Europe. A LETTER A WEEK ago an old friend of mine whom I had not seen for twenty years came to see me. After talking of old school days and friends, both of us asking and answering many questions, my friend asked, "And what did you think of the Washington and Chicago riots?" When I had answered that question she said, "I wish you would send that answer to THE CRISIS, just as you have told it to me, so that our men can know how we women have felt and how we feel now." And so I am sending this, regardless of the fact that I am unused to writing for publication. I said this: "The Washington riot gave me the thrill that comes once in a life time. I was alone when I read between the lines of the morning paper that at last our men had stood like men, struck back, were no longer dumb, driven cattle. When I could no longer read for my streaming tears, I stood up, alone in my room, held both hands high over my head and exclaimed aloud: "Oh, I thank God, thank God!" When I remember anything after this, I was prone on my bed, beating the pillow with both fists, laughing and crying, whimpering like a whipped child, for sheer gladness and madness. The pent-up humiliation, grief and horror of a life time—half a century—was being stripped from me. Only colored women of the south know the extreme in suffering and humiliation. "We know how many insults we have borne silently, for we have hidden many of them from our men because we did not want them to die needlessly in our defense; we know the sorrow of seeing our boys and girls grow up, the swift stab of the heart at night to the sound of a strange footstep, the feel of a tigress to spring and claw the white man with his lustful look at our comely daughters, the deep humiliation of sitting in the Jim Crow part of the street car and hear the white men laugh and discuss us, point out the good and bad points of our bodies. God alone knows the many things colored women have borne here in the South in silence. "And, too, a woman loves a strong man, she delights to feel that her man can protect her, fight for her, if necessary, save her. "No woman loves a weakling, a coward, be she white or black, and some of us have been near to thinking our men cowards, but thank God for Washington colored men! All honor to them, for they first blazed the way and right swiftly did Chicago men follow. They put new hope, a new vision into their almost despairing women. "God grant that our men everywhere refrain from strife, provoke no quarrel, but that they protect their women and homes at any cost." A Southern Colored Woman. I'm sure the editor will understand why I cannot sign my name. NOTICE ON account of the strike of the printers in New York City nearly all the large magazines have stopped publication. THE CRISIS will not stop, but is compelled this month to appear a little later and with fewer pages instead of the enlarged number which we planned. We beg the indulgence of our readers. We promise a magazine in the future which will repay them for their patience and loyalty.
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