Federal Theatre:  Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius Next

After John Houseman's departure from Harlem to head the new "891" classical unit, the Negro unit had produced Turpentine, a play about the conditions in the Florida turpentine camps. Written by Augustus J. Smith and Peter Morrell, the play sparked little interest among the downtown public, who preferred the Negro as "exotic." The Amsterdam News, on the other hand, reported that "plain working people and their problems were movingly dramatized."28 The Seattle Negro unit had produced Stevedore in repertory with Lysistrata (before censorship closed it) and Noah. But by and large, in the early days of the project the Negro units confined themselves to the classics, musicals, folk plays, and melodrama, a fact due in part at least to white directorial control in most units (except that in Boston) and to the paucity of Negro playwrights and scripts.

Turpentine Turpentine, by Augustus J. Smith and Peter Morrell, dealt with tyranny, injustice, and murder in a Negro labor camp in a southern pine woods. In this production at the Lafayette unit in Harlem, Estelle Hemsley (Granny) holds Charles Taylor (Turtle Eyes), while Thomas Mosley (Colonel Dutton) looks on. Federal Theatre Project Collection
Natural Man The Seattle Negro Repertory Company production of Natural Man, a folk opera version of the John Henry legend, written by actor, director, and playwright Theodore Browne. Pictured here is the Beale Street scene, with Joe Staton as John Henry. The woman at his table is probably the "hostess," played by Mable Smalley. Federal Theatre Project Collection

Interestingly, others in the Federal Theatre found the subject of the Negro experience in America of sufficient concern to warrant serious artistic treatment. Helen Tamiris's How Long Brethren, which opened in May 1937, dramatized in dance form Lawrence Gellert's Negro Songs of Protest, songs gathered in the South during his assignment to the Atlanta unit of the Federal Theatre. "To the singing of a Negro Chorus and music by Genevieve Pitot, Tamiris and her group danced seven episodes of Negro life all simple in pattern but dramatic in intensity."29 How Long Brethren drew praise from critics and audiences and won the award from Dance Magazine for the best group choreography of the season.

Androcles and the Lion George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion was a favorite with the Lafayette unit in Harlem. This production at the WPA Building of the New York World's Fair featured Arthur Wilson as Androcles and Add Bates as the lion. Federal Theatre Project Collection