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"Our story has not been told in any moment": Radical black feminist theatre from the old left to Black Power

Julie M Burrell, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation investigates the radical black feminist theatre of the 1940s through the 1970s, focusing on the work of playwrights Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Sonia Sanchez. Each of these artists critically intervened in the discourses of gender, race, and class during the civil rights movement, and, later, the Black Power and Arts movements. Using archival and historical research, I argue that there was a vibrant, radical black feminist theatre movement throughout the twentieth century that sought equal representation for African Americans and a voice for black women. Chapters Two and Three add to the growing body of scholarship that situates Alice Childress as a major figure within the black left and the Communist Party. Through archival research and readings of her work, I demonstrate how Childress scripted dignified, humorous, and realistic portrayals of working class black women. Childress illustrated the theory of "triple jeopardy," the idea circulated within black radical circles that working class African American women were triply oppressed due to their class, race, and gender. Through her experimental forms and daring content, Childress revised racist stereotypes of, for instance, the black female domestic worker, into full-fledged characters. The manner in which African Americans were represented—artistically and politically—was her greatest concern. In Chapter Two, I argue that Childress's body of work can be viewed as an alternative feminist chronicle of African American women through its scripting of the working class black woman, specifically in her play Florence (1949) and her experimental novel of monologues, Like One of the Family (1956). Childress wrote, "I concentrate on portraying the have-nots in a have society, those seldom singled out by mass media, except as source material for derogatory humor." Her focus on the ordinary is anti-bourgeois in its refusal to participate in racial uplift stories lionizing the successful black middle class. In Chapter Three, I focus on Trouble in Mind. While this play has been hitherto regarded as formally conservative, I argue that, to the contrary, Childress uses innovative Brechtian structures. Childress employs radical formal experimentation to forcefully argue for black self-determination in the arts, well before the artists of the Black Arts Movement would. Chapter Four, "The White Problem: White Supremacy and Black Masculinity in the Work of Lorraine Hansberry," focuses on Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and Les Blancs and the playwright's critical interventions into the racial discourses of whiteness, black masculinity, and their intersections, in the civil rights era. By focusing on Hansberry's critique of whiteness and patriarchal white supremacy, this essay redresses a gap in scholarship on Hansberry. I argue that Hansberry was one of the central assessors of whiteness and black masculinity in the civil rights-era United States. Hansberry's representation of black men across her career attempts to find common ground for progressive black masculinity and black feminism to work together to defeat the white supremacist patriarchy detrimental to all African Americans. Moving into the Black Power era, my final chapter posits an alternative model to current scholarship on gender ideology within the Black Arts and Power movements. Rather than envisioning a movement led by men who repressed women, or considering women as marginal figures fighting from the periphery to address questions of feminism, gender, women's issues, and sexuality, I ask, what happens if we center such feminist concerns in our narrative of the Black Arts Movement? Using works by Alice Childress and Sonia Sanchez, I demonstrate that black feminists in this time not only critiqued the masculinist rhetoric of much Black Arts writing, but also proposed a community-centered alternative model of black nationalism. This feminist model was grounded in love and support between black women and men, and advanced by black feminists as imperative for the success of the black nation's political goals.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Black studies|American literature|Theater History

Recommended Citation

Burrell, Julie M, ""Our story has not been told in any moment": Radical black feminist theatre from the old left to Black Power" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3589001.