Raiders of the Lost Art Review

Before lyrical rhythm-and-rhyme masters such as Dr. Dre, Queen Latifah, M.C. Lyte, Chuck D and Curtis Blow produced hard-core raps voicing the trials and tribulations of the African-American community, Willis Richardson, Shirley Graham, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Andrew M. Burris used their pens as tools of protest and enlightenment. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the thought-provoking, protest literature that came before. Thanks to the lit-sleuthing professors James V. Hatch and Leo Hamalian at City College of New York, editors of the newly issued Lost Plays of the Harlem Renaissance 1920-1940, the gap between the written and sung versions of the African-American experience can be reconciled anew.The introduction, authored by Hatch, details his search for these heretofore forgotten tomes and provides the reader with fascinating historical context.Hatch uncovered many of these plays at Karamu House, an historic African-American theater in Cleveland. The Karamu House Black Repertory Theater was, in its heyday during the 1920s and '30s, a major force in what Hatch refers to as the "little theater movement." Dozens of small theaters showcased the work of black writers. Karamu (Swahili for "meeting place") produced works by Langston Hughes and other figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Rowena Jelliffe's Gilpin Players first brought the works to life, but the troupe was later renamed the Karamu Players. While on a trip to Ohio in search of black oral history, Hatch went to the theater. The directors, Reuben and Dorothy Silver, were the proverbial leprechauns guarding the treasure at the mythical rainbow's end. The Silvers had kept, from as far back as the 1920s, countless scripts from Karamu productions. They turned them over to Hatch to preserve for posterity.Though a majority of the works included here were discovered at the Karamu House, some were found through New York City's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Hatch-Billops collections. Others had been published in African-American publications such as the Pittsburgh Courier, Crisis, Messenger and Amsterdam News. So why did Hatch shepherd these plays into publication?"I think it was the teacher part of me that wanted to see these plays preserved. And the only way to preserve them is to have them published," he says. "Also the plays were pretty good." Included here are works by playwright and composer Francis Hall Johnson, whose work, Run Little Chillun, hadn't appeared in print until this book. "The main criterion for inclusion in the book was the play's writer be black," says Hatch. Interestingly, some of the plays Hatch uncovered were written by white writers about black life. But Hatch wanted black life written from a black perspective. It was important for Hatch to remain true to the words of W.E.B. DuBois: "Plays of Negro life must be about us É by us É and for us."The reader of Lost Plays will undoubtedly find the themes covered in these works all too familiar -- 18 plays by 13 playwrights tackle war, unemployment, lynching, miscegenation, the migration to the North, racism, religion, theater, the lack of unity, romance, dark skin vs. light skin, the role of women and labor unions.Highlights of the anthology include the anti-lynching play, Son-Boy, by Joseph S. Mitchell, which speaks not only to the barbarism of lynching but addresses gender roles and the lack of unity in the black community. The plot follows Zeke, the passive, don't-rock-the-boat husband, and Dinah, the aggressive, "Hell, my people helped build this country" wife, as they deal with the circumstances surrounding a lynching. With a strange sense of calm belying danger and ugliness, Zeke asks a friend if it was a mob of white folks. Dinah pre-empts the answer by saying to Zeke, "Y'aint nevah seen a mob o' niggers, is yuh? Dey cain't stick tergedder long enuff."George S. Schuyler's play Yellow Peril examines a fair-skinned sister who uses her hue to gain financial advantage. She says, "I am worshiped by professionals and society swells, because I yaller. É These darkies are crazy about white women. É They kind of compromise and get the whitest colored woman they can find." Her maid, a dark-skinned woman from Jamaica, responds with, "I wish I was your color." Now, thanks to the efforts of Hatch, Hamalian and Wayne State University Press, these works of art and conscience are preserved. And in the telling of these artistic and instructive tales, we are reminded of the adage that those who do not learn from history are surely doomed to repeat it.

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