Intersections: Recovering the Genius of Shirley Graham Du Bois

The Racial and Gender Politics of Early 20th Century Theater

“Gradually, I believe I can break through the barriers. And this is the only hope for real development of the Negro in the theatre. Some one of us must be in a position of authority. Until that happens we get no plays produced and most of our acting is turned into burlesque.” - Shirley Graham Du Bois to W.E.B. Du Bois September 8, 1938

In the late 1930s, America had emerged from the Great Depression and was about to head into the second World War. This economically-unsteady society was still Jim Crow America, but many black Americans found that the war gave them new opportunities at home. This chapter focuses on Shirley Graham Du Bois' shift from public to private theater to map her trajectory as an artist. As Director of the Negro Unit of Chicago's Federal Theater Project, Graham Du Bois worked on both the administrative and creative aspects of projects and elevated the “nearly defunct” group of theater-makers to a “level of national recognition and importance.” After the FTP was shut down in 1939, Graham Du Bois was granted a Rosenwald Fellowship that financed a two-year residency at Yale Drama School (1938-1940). The energy that Graham Du Bois brought to her work exemplifies that of artistic black women at the time: World War II “offered [them] a brief period of possibility and hope.” Her passion for drama during this time was borne out of her environments: as a socially and politically aware intellectual, she had a desire to create, and a conviction about the influence of theater on American culture. As public theater had restrictions that stifled her theatrical intentions, Graham Du Bois decided to go to Yale and move away from public theater when the FTP closed. The politics surrounding black theater in the 1930s to Graham Du Bois' movement to Yale, reflects the evolution of Graham Du Bois as a prolific dramatist whose works went largely unnoticed due to her identity as a black woman.

Graham Du Bois' shift from public theater to an institution like Yale reveals her belief that higher education was as an achievable and necessary step in her process as a dramatist. Her time at the FTP helped define her passion for and political perspective on theater. Her continued study of theater at Yale enhanced her abilities to use theater as a vehicle for political and social change. At the FTP she had witnessed the volatility of government-funded theater, so she deliberately turned to a prestigious institution to further her studies in a more stable environment. It is unsurprising, given Graham Du Bois' prior experiences with higher education that she was accepted into Yale Drama School with a Fellowship. She had already studied at the Sorbonne and Oberlin Conservatory, and the success of Tom-Tom and her impressive work at the FTP prepared her for a more rigorous theater education. Her experiences afforded her the ability to use her intellect and creativity to make pieces of theater about topics and characters she connected to, something she had not been able to focus on at the FTP. 

Because of the creative limitations at the FTP, Graham Du Bois was hesitant though determined to make new work at Yale. As a black woman, she lived with the “double burden of racism and sexism;” add dramatist, and the “barriers” she faced multiplied. Compared to the works of white male playwrights, black female playwrights’ work often went ignored. We must look at Graham Du Bois' plays not with an eye to her technical and writing abilities; instead, we must acknowledge and admire the fact alone that she wrote at all. She wrote plays that focused on the black American experience and primarily emphasized the impact of slavery. This was quite radical; at the time, most audiences wanted to see stereotypical depictions of black Americans because it was familiar and diluted the reality of the violence that the institution of slavery had done unto a whole race. 

Graham Du Bois wrote to combat these stereotypes despite the fact that this meant her plays would not necessarily be well-received. In one of her Yale plays, It's Morning, Graham Du Bois depicts male and female American slaves without the satire past dramatists had utilized in their depictions. She aimed to reposition the white perception of black Americans. It’s Morning focuses on a slave mother, Cissie, who is faced with the decision whether or not to kill her daughter, Millie, who the master plans to sell the next day. It is a drama that highlights the dark irony of slavery and forces white viewers to acknowledge the violent institution of slavery. It is a significant piece in black theater because it aims to realistically represent the black American experience. This was something that the FTP, even in its Negro Units, was not necessarily attempting to do. While It’s Morning was never professionally produced, it was workshopped at Yale. Graham Du Bois “was wary of the project,” as made evident in letters she wrote to acquaintances at the time. These hesitations arose because of the potential backlash she could face as a result of her politically charged theater pieces.

Despite the constraints black theater makers faced in a racist, sexist, and socially and economically unstable world, Graham Du Bois truly believed in the power of theater. What was most important to her was not the success of the play or the financial winnings of a successful play: she wanted her pieces to affect her audiences deeply. Because of the political climate of America at the time, which still saw frequent lynchings, a weak economy, and a war on the horizon, “many black people had little desire to go to the theater, to be educated and subjected to the trials and tribulations of the race problem in America.” Despite the lack of general public interest in black theater, Graham Du Bois continued to make it because she believed in the political power of theater. She condemned her colleagues for having “complacently accepted the white man’s standard of what a Negro ought to be on the stage.” She was determined to uproot the pre-existing white ideals of American theater and white audience’s ideas about black Americans through playwriting. Graham Du Bois felt she had a duty, as a relatively privileged, highly educated black woman, to “‘study for, think for and speak for fourteen million brown Americans.’” The content, tone, and imagery of It’s Morning and her other plays signify her resolution to advance and uplift black American theater. Since Graham Du Bois was situated as a playwright during such a contentious time in American politics and society, her works never attained the goal for which she had reached. However, the work that she created was incredibly unique for its time, and those who were close to her knew she was onto something brilliant and important.
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Nancy Handelman is a senior History major from New York City. Shirley Graham Du Bois has been an incredible subject to study during this time and it has been a privilege to uncover her story that contributes so much to the history of America, Oberlin, and music. She has had a wonderful time working on this collaborative project and is so grateful for Tamika Nunley and Fredara Hadley for their enthusiasm, wisdom, and support throughout the process. 

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