Black Religiosity In Harlem Renaissance Theatre

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During the Harlem Renaissance, female playwrights challenged the stereotype of African Americans’ natural religiosity. They questioned the role of religion in African American life, and in doing so, constructed powerful critiques of gender, race, and class. Their plays set the precedent for drama as a tool for political and social change, even into the modern age. This paper will discuss the mainstream image of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance in theater and film—an image which relied on the idea that African Americans were naturally religious and emotionally and intellectually simple. Then it will argue that theater undermined the mainstream and became a literal stage of resistance, especially since many of its participants…show more content…
“Primitive, spontaneous, rhythmic, emotional—like the African American religious subject, black theater was expected to meet expectations that satisfied a racial imagination demanding conformity to a mythologized primal version of humanity” (Prentiss 164). However, individual African American playwrights painted a different picture by using markers of black religiosity within a different framework, fashioning their scripts “to undermine the stereotype that instinct, emotion, superstition, otherworldliness, irrationality, and blind faith were innate features of African American religious life” (Prentiss 167). In her book “Their Place On Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America”, Eliz Brown-Guillory explains that “two occurrences marked a revolution in black theater in American and ushered in the Harlem Renaissance. First, in 1910…the first issue of Crisis magazine was published. Black artists could now publish their works, and even win literary contests…The second occurrence that some critics say sparked the Harlem Renaissance was Ridgely Torrence’s New York production in 1917 of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre…This white playwright’s interest in blacks as subject matter on the American stage opened the floodgates, and the Negro became popular material…show more content…
Born in 1880 in Atlanta, Johnson was the most prolific African American female playwright of her era. Her plays reveal a host of contradictions: faith in a loving God, but also a theological liberalism and an openness to non-Christian ideas about religion (Prentiss 79). Indeed, at times her patience in the ultimate triumph of justice wore thin, a theological challenge present within her work. In her plays, Johnson’s plots center around antilynching suggest an author struggling to find hope—or the presence of God—in light of atrocity and calls into question the church’s value in creating positive social change. In 1937, Johnson was asked by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “to write an antilynching script…A Bill to Be Passed takes place over four scenes, moving back and forth from a small church in Mississippi to the halls of the U.S. Congress. The play opens in the church where the ‘Reverend Timothy Jackson’ is calling together a meeting of his congregants. We learn the church has ‘sent a delegate’ to Congress charged with reporting back to the congregation on the fate of an unnamed antilynching bill” being debated in the House of Representatives (Prentiss 83). The end of the play is ambiguous, but because of the demands of the NAACP’s commission, it is

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