These dramas express feelings that today's audiences cannot condone, or even comprehend, but that our ancestors understood -- in some cases all too well.
George Aiken's dramatization of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1952) gained instant acclaim as "the world's greatest hit!"
Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (1859) drew audiences in both America and England for decades.
Less popular but earnest presentations of racial issues in America were J. T. Trowbridge's Neighbor Jackwood (1857), William Wells Brown's The Escape (1858) -- a stageworthy play by America's first black dramatist, and James McCabe's The Guerillas (1862), showing the Civil War from the Southern perspective.
By the early 20th century, views of African Americans had changed in the theatres -- or at least begun to change. In 1909 Edward Sheldon, that thoughtful dramatist who has never been adequately appreciated by historians) wrote his perceptive play with the title we cannot mention. Ironically, Ned Sheldon's play is forcefully pro-African American.
One critic, Clayton Hamilton, a professor at Columbia University, found himself unable to consider the play seriously. George Jean Nathan, an astute critic with a lasting reputation, called this play "one of the ten dramatic shocks of the century."
As the 20th century progressed and American society underwent even greater upheavals, dramatists edged into American race problems through folk drama. Paul Green's one-act White Dresses (1926) makes a poignant comment. Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures (1930) captured more audience attention -- by entertaining while avoiding issues.
A vital play of this period, Dubose Heyward's Brass Ankle (1931, also available among our rare books) with a title suggesting its pain, did not attract a large audience -- only 44 performances, but its anti-racism theme deserves attention. (Heyward, with his wife Dorothy, had been successful with Porgy a few years earlier.)
But in the theatre, which always pursues a single moment of excitement or sensation, entertainment value usually wins the day. Thoughtful appreciation and understanding frequently take years -- if not decades.
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