Shakespeare in the Harlem Renaissance

Doctor Freda Scott Giles, University of Georgia
Dr. Freda Scott Giles

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 161

When you think about the Harlem Renaissance, theater might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But, says Dr. Freda Scott Giles, theater played a significant role in the blossoming of Black American arts and culture of the 1920s and '30s. Of course, because there’s little in the English-language theater untouched by Shakespeare, he was present in the Harlem Renaissance too. Banner Shakespeare productions included Orson Welles’s hit “Voodoo” Macbeth, produced by the Federal Theater Project, and the Midsummer-inspired Swingin’ the Dream, which was a Broadway flop despite the talents of musician Louis Armstrong and comedian Moms Mabley.

We talk to Dr. Giles, Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre and Film Studies and African American Studies at the University of Georgia, about how the artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance regarded the Bard. Plus, we visit the African Company of the 1820s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s to learn about more than a century of Black responses to Shakespeare. Dr. Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Freda Scott Giles is Associate Professor Emerita of Theater at the University of Georgia. She was a contributor to three books: Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration, published in 2020; Constructions of Race in Southern Theatre: From Federalism to the Federal Theatre Project, published in 2003; and American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, which was published in 1995.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published February 16, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Here Engage My Words,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare’s work was written during a time that a lot of people call “The Renaissance.” There was another Renaissance—one that was closer to our time. And Shakespeare was a part of that one, too.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The time I’m referring to is “The Harlem Renaissance.” Ten or so years of artistic and intellectual abundance fueled by the Great Migration, by Caribbean immigration, and by dreams to reconstruct the world of Reconstruction by Black soldiers coming home from World War I. 

Dr. Freda Scott Giles is an Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre and Film Studies and African American Studies at the University of Georgia and for decades, she’s studied the theater world of the Harlem Renaissance. Because there’s almost nothing in the English-language theater that isn’t touched by Shakespeare, you won’t be surprised to find him here too, and not just in the places you’d expect. We found Dr. Giles’ perspective on this intersection so fresh, that we had to bring it to you.

She joined us for this podcast, which we call, “I Here Engage My Words.” Dr. Freda Scott Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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BARBARA BOGAEV: Freda, just to start us off, I have a really basic question. How big a role did theater play in the Harlem Renaissance? Because when I think back to my history books, they seem to play a—you know, writers of all kinds and poets and painters, but what about theater and playwrights?

FREDA SCOTT GILES: Yes, that's the problem that when the theater component of this era is remembered, the theater is reduced in significance. But the people who were living in that time thought that theater was very significant.

W.E.B. Du Bois thought that theater would be a major element in changing people's minds about who African Americans are, what the problems are. He himself started a theater company, and he wanted to build up a national black theater that would have a circuit of theaters through the United States where plays by, for, and about African Americans would be performed. They even had a running segment in The Crisis called, “The Negro in Art: How Will He Be Portrayed.” And all of the intellectual voices of the period, white and Black, chimed in on what theater should be and what the theater should do.

BOGAEV: Wow, so it was seminal. Did Du Bois write plays himself?

GILES: Yes, he did. Du Bois wrote plays. He never published them, but I read them in his papers.

BOGAEV: Huh. Well, what were his plays like?

GILES: Well, he really appreciated expressionism. Several of the plays are very expressionistic and would be hard to produce, because you would have… one play he had civilization crashing down, and I said, "Hmm, I wonder what that looks like."

BOGAEV: That would be Cecil B. DeMille production.

GILES: Yes. Some of them were. But one play that I thought really was stage-worthy was a play called Seven-up. Seven Up was a card game. Du Bois in his plays really tackles some hard-hitting issues, and this was about an African American woman in the South who was desired by two white men. And one of the men kills the other man. They fight over her. And a Black man is blamed and then he is killed, and she ends up in prison. The end of the play, the prison guard and the sheriff are playing a card game: Seven-up. And the one who wins gets to go into her cell and have his way with her. So it was a pretty hard—

BOGAEV: Wow.

GILES: Yeah. Yeah, it was a pretty hard-hitting play. He had a problem with language. He was trained as a writer in the 19th century, so his style was pretty Victorian. It wasn't as speak-able as it could be.

BOGAEV: Yeah, pretty flowery.

GILES: Yeah, it was pretty flowery, yeah. But I said, "Well, this particular play, I could see being done."

BOGAEV: Maybe this question is redundant, but at the time, there were movies aimed at Black audiences. How about popular theater produced for Black audiences? What was the scene in the Little Theaters?

GILES: We have to take all into consideration the Great Migration. Just before World War I is when we have this huge movement. The people were trickling out of the South. But now African American neighborhoods were becoming communities and could support more things.

I live in Athens, Georgia, which is the home of the Morton Theatre which is arguably the first African American-owned theater. They would put on the variety entertainment, but they also had community events. There was high culture and low culture. They would have high culture: they started the theater with a classical pianist concert of an African American classical pianist. But they also had the low culture.

BOGAEV: So you're describing a kind of, as you say, variety show situation. But were there also plays? Full plays?

GILES: Yes. In the early teens, you get African American theater companies. While people writing plays came along kind of slowly, people would do Broadway show. So you would take a popular detective story or a popular soap opera-ish type melodrama, and you would take it into the Black community with a Black cast so that they could enjoy the same things that the white audience was enjoying.

BOGAEV: How about original works or social uplift plays?

GILES: Original works, there were a few things, but it was when the Harlem Renaissance really began to hit its stride that we have a lot of people writing. And some of the playwrights are not playwrights that are really widely remembered today.

Willis Richardson, for example, he worked in Printing and Engraving in DC. But he wanted to be a playwright. And he tried to enroll in some of the programs that they had, and he couldn't because he was African American.

But he became very popular. As the Little Negro Theatre movement started to grow, his plays became very popular. One group got one his plays called The Chip Woman's Fortune. It was in 1923 that it became the first non-musical play authored by an African American to be produced in a Broadway theater.

BOGAEV: What's a chip woman?

GILES: Okay, good question. A chip woman—at this time, coal was the main fuel. And the coal wagons were often driven by horses. You have this big coal wagon, and coal chips would fall off. And there would be people who would go behind the wagons and pick up the chips and have little bags of coal and sell them.  

BOGAEV: Oh, yeah. I thought those were kids. I thought kids did that.

GILES: No, she was a woman with a grown son who was in prison. This is how she earned her living. And she saved her money because she was saving for him to get out of prison. You know, when he got out of prison, that he could make a new start in life. Everything ends happily ever after, and they put on the Victrola and they all dance to the Victrola.

BOGAEV: And in the midst of all this, was there also Shakespeare?

GILES: Yes. But if I may, just let me go back a little bit for that. Shakespeare has been a part of African American performance ever since the 1820s. I just wanted to mention the African Company. That was a group of free African Americans in New York from about 1821 to '23 or '24. The lead actor, loved… his favorite role was Richard III. And so they went to perform Richard III, and they were arrested for performing Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: A while back, five years in fact, we did a podcast about this. Really interesting story.

GILES: Wonderful.

BOGAEV: I'm thinking, as you described as the amazing depth and breadth of theater in the African American community throughout these decades, how infuriating and bedeviling it is that despite all of this productivity, what really has come down to us in the 21st century from the whole kind of Harlem Renaissance or post-Harlem Renaissance period is, or are things like The Hot Mikado, that jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical that Debbie Allen, the choreographer, really championed. And then all these stories about this one production, this 1939 Broadway flop called Swingin' the Dream, which was a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream with big band jazz numbers dropped in kind of haphazardly. It had amazing cast members like Moms Mabley and Louis Armstrong.

GILES: Huge cast.

BOGAEV: Huge cast. And both of these productions that have somehow survived the test of time seem chockfull of stereotypes. For instance, there's this song in Swingin' the Dream called "Peace Brother" where a gospel group sings about chicken and living in cabins and being in debt. The whole Stepin Fetchit type story.

So could you close the circle for us from characters like Stepin Fetchit or Aunt Jemima to Swingin' the Dream? Just how front and center were stereotypes in 1930s, and how you see those stereotypes functioning in the culture then. That it would give rise to...

GILES: Oh, well, look in the culture. Who's the biggest movie star of that time? Stepin Fetchit.

BOGAEV: Right, or Gone with the Wind. What was that, 1939?

GILES: Gone with the Wind.

BOGAEV: Mammy.

GILES: 1939. Mammy. And what she brought to that role was brilliant. Because she did give much more dimension to that character than you would've thought was there. But she was still that mammy with the red petticoat and all of that.

After that, the NAACP made a concerted effort to improve the characters. Now film is becoming the major element that captures the imagination of the people. It's much cheaper to go to a movie than to go to see a play. And so film is carrying on this tradition of the stereotypes.

BOGAEV: So when you look at the Swingin' the Dream, do you see those stereotypes as, what is it, like, reinforcing? Because it was for a white audience. So was it reinforcing?

GILES: Yeah, well, primarily...

BOGAEV: And reassuring this white audience that, oh, yeah, you know, everything you're doing to keep African Americans under control. That's just right and proper?

GILES: Right. Well, if you look at the structure—the original play, the noble characters, the Duke and Hippolyta characters were white.

BOGAEV: Right. The aristocrats were all white.

GILES: The aristocrats are white, and all of the mechanicals were people of color.

BOGAEV: Right, like Louis Armstrong as Bottom.

GILES: Louis Armstrong was Bottom. Moms Mabley was one of the mechanicals. And I'm trying to remember the actor's name, but the actor who created the character of Lightning on the television version of Amos 'n' Andy. He was doing that character, a version of that character in the play.

BOGAEV: Right, and it's not just this production. You have Orson Welles of Voodoo Macbeth. Which is remembered as this watershed moment. And it was, because in some ways it had an all-Black cast. There are only a few clips available of it, but it is one of these stereotypical portrayals of Black people that you could see in movies from the time, as like King Kong. You know, people with spears and bones in their noses.

GILES: Right. All these things are happening, and all of these are the legacy of Birth of a Nation. This type of image was still prevalent. That's why Du Bois, and Locke—Alain Locke who was another intellectual—Langston Hughes. Many, many of the writers of that time were fighting against these things. But when you don't control the means of production, you have very little that you can do. So that's why Du Bois said, and he had published a very famous manifesto in 1925 that, “The Negro Theatre must be by us, for us, about us, and near us.” We have to create our own work, and we have to support our own work.

Then James Weldon Johnson wrote a very, very fine essay about being an artist and not knowing who your audience is. Not knowing how the audience is going to perceive your work, and whether your work is going to be perceived in the way that you want it to be perceived. And so there were a lot of debates, energy put into trying to work on creating space for African American artists to do their art the way that art came through them.

BOGAEV: Yeah, you sent us a Langston Hughes poem about this. You have it there, right?

GILES: Yes, I do.

BOGAEV: Could you maybe read it for us?

GILES: Oh, I'd love to. It's called, "Note on Commercial Theatre." Was written in 1940 by Langston Hughes.

"You've taken my blues and gone—
You sing 'em on Broadway.
And you sing 'em in Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed 'em up with symphonies.
And you fixed 'em
So they don't sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.

You also took my spirituals and gone.
You put me in Macbeth and Carmen Jones
And all kinds of Swing Mikados
And in everything but what's about me—
But someday somebody'll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me—
Black and beautiful—
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it'll be
Me myself!

Yes. It'll be me."

BOGAEV: Thank you so much. I'm so glad you read that. I loved how you did it.
 

GILES: Oh, thank you.

BOGAEV: While we're talking about Voodoo Macbeth too, it's so interesting to see how much of this history has been lost. I know that the civil rights activist Dorothy Height had some connection to that Voodoo Macbeth. She once said that the cast considered going on strike if the powers that be didn't bring in a Black director to either take over from Orson Welles or to work with Orson Welles. And this kind of...

GILES: Yes, well.

BOGAEV: Yeah, tell us about this.

GILES: Orson Welles was a person of wonderful ideas, but he didn't know the culture. He was kind of just going from the, I would say, the cosmetics of the culture. A lot of drums and voodoo-ey stuff, and hoodoo. But I can understand how the cast felt that the values of the play were being lost in these stereotypical images.

BOGAEV: And he wasn't even supposed to be the director, right?

GILES: No. Well, the director—there was a very fine African American actress of the time named Rose McClendon. She was brilliant, but unfortunately, she died of cancer. So they hired Orson Welles and John Houseman. And Orson Welles had this big idea about doing Macbeth, taking it to Haiti, and jazzing it up with a lot of hoodoo and drums and stuff. It was a big hit. It was a big hit in the community. A lot of African American people went because it was in Harlem, and a lot of white people liked it too.

But that's the problem with certain things. There's difficulties there. Yes, it could be well done, but then after you go home and you think about it, you say, "Well, what was it actually telling me?" And as Langston Hughes said, "When am I going to get to show some work that is about me as I am? How I approach life." So I can understand why the actors were concerned on that, on the director.

BOGAEV: Well, this issue of representation—and you were talking about it earlier—it's pretty layered because there's always that issue of the dynamic where any non-white, non-mainstream performers are called on to do more than just entertain, and they feel the burden of authoring some kind of uplift for their race or for their group. You were saying there was this real split on this in Black intellectual circles at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. So how did they see that tension?

GILES: Well, there were some who were on the side of exploitation. "This is what they want, let's take the money and run." Okay. Then there were other people, say, "No, we must show only the better aspects of ourselves. We must show our aspiration and that we are not just one kind of people. We're not all slaves. We have a middle class. We have an upper class. We're not all criminals".

And then you had Langston Hughes and the younger group of artists at the time who said, "Look, we are going to write and we are going to produce based on what we see as artists and what we want to say as artists. So we're going to have imperfect people. And we're going to show what we think is something truthful."

And then you have another group of people who said—these are represented by George Schuyler, who was an intellectual at that time—who said, "There's no such thing as African American culture, so stop trying to say that we have a culture. We don't. We're just Black Anglo-Saxons."

So you have a number of different views, but my particular view that I think worked was Langston Hughes' view. Said just, "The artist is going to be the artist."

BOGAEV: An artist speaking as an artist for other artists. And when you look at Shakespeare in the context of this question of uplifting the people, how does Shakespeare fit in? Because I'm thinking of a podcast we did recently about immigrants arriving in America in the late 19th century and how people were saying, "We're going to use Shakespeare to make these immigrants into real Americans." Was there that kind of intellectual argument during the Harlem Renaissance about Shakespeare?

GILES: Well, in the universities, in the schools… this is another thing. After the Civil War, literacy was a primary end, just right up until my parents. Education was like the second religion. So people wanted to educate themselves. What is the epitome of education? Shakespeare. So, in the colleges, you have performing plays by Shakespeare and the other classics, the Greek classics. The classics. Also, people taught elocution, so in using these classics to try to reduce the Southern accent so you wouldn't sound so country when you were going out in the professional world.

So there are a lot of functions for these classical pieces. And even though there were African American actors very versed in the classics, of course they couldn't perform in the white theater companies. So they would go around on the circuit like—my biggest example is Richard B. Harrison. He was a classically trained and classical actor. He would go through Chautauqua, through the Lyceum Circuit. He would do one-person shows of Shakespearean plays.

BOGAEV: This is jumping ahead now, but how does Paul Robeson in Othello on Broadway in 1943 fit in to what we're talking about?

GILES: Well, that was always kind of funny to me because everybody thinks, "Wow." I mean, at that time, they're going, "Wow, a Black man playing Othello. Wow." Because there's this whole bunch of people who played Othello who were Black, just nobody remembered them.

But he had, several years before, he had done it in England. That was the only classical role—I mean, the only Shakespearean role that he got to play. Why didn't they let him play some of the other parts? He only got to play Othello with that wonderful voice. And the reviews talked about the flexibility of his voice and how magnificent he was in that piece.

The role of Othello itself, though, has its problems. Because Shakespeare, being a man of his time, had a particular view of the Moors, which kind of reflected Queen Elizabeth's view of the Moors. But still, within that role, he got to portray a range of emotions. He got to be a person of stature.

BOGAEV: Right. And that's layered too. I mean, how did the white audiences—how did they view a Black man being a general and a commander of people? How'd they score that?

GILES: Well, that was a problem. If you remember, there was a story about—in Napoleon's day, the army… some people from the army went to see a production of Othello, and somebody shot the guy that played Othello because he couldn't handle the idea of a Black in that position.

So yeah, there were problems, and that's one reason why Othello, I think, was so easily destroyed. Because we have Iago who's, "Oh, I know exactly how to destroy this guy." And he had to be destroyed. They couldn't leave him in this position. But, on the other hand, he was a brilliant general.

BOGAEV: But was that considered, "Oh, but he… you know, Black people are good at fighting," or something? Was that something that whites were more comfortable with? That it had a...

GILES: Yeah. You have a particular space that you're allowed to be in. If you ever move out of that space, then you have a problem.

BOGAEV: We're really taking you through your paces now. I'm all the way up to the 1960s.

GILES: Okay!

BOGAEV: And the Black Arts movement and Amiri Baraka. So what was that essential shift in thinking of the '60s? You know, was it basically, who cares what the white audience thinks or wants?

GILES: Exactly. We go back to, "By us, for us, about us, near us." So Baraka moved out of Greenwich Village to Harlem, and that was more than a physical move. That was a symbolic move. Black art for Black people. We are going to make our own art for our own people, and we are not going to have that looking over our shoulder of the white community. And we don't care what the white critics say.

BOGAEV: I know, back in the time there were students who were actually shutting down classes and shutting down productions, right?

HARLEM RENAISSANCE 1-24-21   [00:25:52]
GILES: Yes.

BOGAEV: And making this demand. We want Black curriculum, we want Black plays, stop the Shakespeare, stop doing Arthur Miller.

GILES: Yeah. It was a backlash. Because people felt suppressed. They had not been heard. They wanted their voices to be heard. What I'm thinking about is that the same time—it's interesting, Joseph Pabst started a Black Shakespeare company with the Public Theater, and they got criticism from everywhere. The white critics, the Black critics, you know. And now there's the Classical Theatre of Harlem, which does classical work. So I think we moved through a period of backlash, through a period of resistance. Now we're more in a period of space. “I want space to do what I think is important to do as an artist.”

But during the '60s, it was, "I must push through this. I am tired of subsuming my identity." Just going all the way back to these productions. The Swing Mikado and Swingin' the Dream. "I am caught up and subsumed in these expressions which are not mine. They're trying to shove me into, trying to fit into. I want to make my own expressions." And in, for example, Swingin' the Dream, it was like, “When I'm making the music, then I am making my expressions. But in putting me in this context of this story from this writer, this is not me.”

BOGAEV: And that's really so well expressed in August Wilson's work. That he wanted African Americans to do art that is of their own specific ethic background. We have this new Ma Rainey's Black Bottom production, the movie right now, which I watched yesterday.

GILES: Ah, yes.

BOGAEV: Yeah, you saw it too, right? Recently.

GILES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

BOGAEV: And you really see what he was thinking. What was behind his thinking there in that film.

GILES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. “I am going to stand my ground in my way.” I don't want to spoil it for anybody who hasn't seen it, but the 1920s is a time of great ferment. Of great change. It's also a time of great suffering. We have Tulsa, Oklahoma. We have Rosewood, Florida. We have the Red Summer of 1919. It's a dangerous time.

Wilson does a wonderful job of exploring all the tensions in the Black community, and tensions between Black artists and the white owners of the record companies; so the means through which this art can get out to the public. It's a brilliant piece.

BOGAEV: It is. And I was wondering as I was watching it, whether you draw a direct line from the issues that August Wilson was exploring and struggling with, to what's going on in the culture now with people objecting to the, for instance, the dominance of historic white male writers like Shakespeare in the curriculum, or the academy, or the stage?

GILES: Well, there has to be more space. It's been for decades; I remember going to conference in the 1970s where there was discussion about the cannon. Shakespeare was a great tool of colonialism. I mean, you go and you conquer the country and you teach them Shakespeare, and, “This is the epitome of art.” But anyway, say, “No, we're in post-colonial period, post-colonialism. We have to break these bonds. We understand that we've had this education in one people's culture. One type of culture. We're going to speak from our own culture. We're going to speak in the way that we've developed.” So, yeah, that tension has always been there. And it's still there.

BOGAEV: Thank you so much. I feel I would like to talk to you for another five hours, so I'm going to spare you that.

GILES: Oh, you've been so kind. Thank you. I'm enjoying it.

BOGAEV: I can fantasize. I really appreciate it. And please do take care of yourself.

GILES: Oh, thank you. You too. I hope everyone will be safe and well, and this terrible COVID-19 situation will end as soon as possible.


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WITMORE: Dr. Freda Scott Giles is Associate Professor Emerita of Theater at the University of Georgia. She was a contributor to three books: Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration, published in 2020; Constructions of Race in Southern Theatre: From Federalism to the Federal Theatre Project, published in 2003; and American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, which was published in 1995. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, “I Here Engage My Words,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.

Doctor Freda Scott Giles, University of Georgia
Dr. Freda Scott Giles

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