Theses Doctoral

Freedom and Equality Now! Contextualizing the Nexus between the Civil Rights Movement and Drama

Nesmith, Nathaniel Graham

During the second half of the twentieth century, the concepts of racial exclusion and inequality were impugned when the Civil Rights Movement undertook the challenge to bring about social and racial egalitarianism. The success of the Movement depended on contributions from many sources. This study focuses on the cultural entity of theatre to examine the contributions of selected plays to the Movement. It investigates key theatre-related issues that framed the ethnopolitical debate between white supremacists, Black Nationalists, and racial integrationists to show how the Movement gained from those groups. The thematic premise supports the clause that theatre, as a didactic instrument for change, championed prime Civil Rights Movement goals (public education, housing, and voting) while ascertaining how these goals were integrated in plays to help audiences internalize the political and social ideologies of the Movement.

When the Movement brought about an increase in black voting, progress in school desegregation, and enhanced housing opportunities for African Americans, the profound changes ushered in a significant shift in sensibilities, attitudes, and outlooks, which had political ramifications around the world. Thus theatre played a progressive role in the amelioration of race problems through its dramatists. This study argues that this was the era when artists, particularly black theatre artists, fought for equality in American theatre, which resulted in the increased visibility of African-American performers, a proliferation of black theatre productions, a major rise in African-American dramatists, and most important, an explosion in black plays.

African-American playwrights, using their dramatic voices to become cultural arbiters and myth-makers while simultaneously voicing their advocacy of the Civil Rights Movement's principles, set forth to elucidate and sanction the politics that characterized black grievances. As the Movement was a catalyst for cultural authenticity and literary legitimacy, this study evaluates how a blending of social, political, economic, and cultural factors was dramatized to educate audiences and motivate demonstrators. Methodological approaches consist of critical textual analyses of the plays, evaluations of critical writings on theatre-related civil rights issues, historical analyses of important events of the Movement, and interviews. Primary source materials from the archives of civil rights organizations will reveal how they assisted in promoting, supporting, and marketing these plays.

Five notable plays, each endowed with a progressive politics, comprise the primary plays in this study. The introduction provides a historical overview of the Movement and its major goals, focusing on public education, housing, and voting. Chapter One examines Loften Mitchell's A Land Beyond the River (1957) and its connection to education. Chapter Two examines Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959) to investigate the drama's advocacy for decent housing. Chapter Three relies on Ossie Davis's Purlie Victorious (1961) to reveal the role of humor and its connection to civil rights. Chapter Four examines Amiri Baraka's Dutchman (1964) to investigate black militancy. Chapter Five, which takes on the issue of voting, offers critical analyses of George Sklar's And People All Around (1966), which was inspired by real-life events. This study demonstrates how the achievements of theatre, through its texts, played a role in the cultural politics of the Civil Rights Movement.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Aronson, Arnold P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 14, 2013