The Plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson: From the "New Negro" Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252073335
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 216
  • Sales rank: 1,406,619
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

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By Georgia Douglas Johnson


Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-03092-3


Georgia Douglas Johnson (1877?-1966) was one of the earliest African American women playwrights and, with twenty-eight plays, one of the most prolific of her era. From her home in Washington, D.C., she contributed to the artistic productivity of the Harlem, or "New Negro," Renaissance, as well as to early twentieth-century African American drama and the corresponding national black theatre movement. Although she was a multitalented artist, writing poems, plays, short stories, and music, most critical attention has focused on her poetry and her reputation as the "lady poet" of the New Negro Renaissance. Examining Johnson's contributions as a playwright and generating a profile of her life in the theatre not only supplements the work of previous scholars, but also contributes to a fuller understanding of her place in cultural history and provides insight into her rich and complex dramatic vision.

This volume is the first to focus on Johnson as a playwright and to include all of her extant plays. Only a few of her plays were published in her lifetime and, while some production records exist, documentation for the staging of many dramas is difficult to find, since they were mainly produced in schools, churches, lodges, YWCAs, and other amateur venues of the New Negro theatre. Published here in their most complete form, Johnson's plays will be of interest to students and scholars of theatre, African American studies, women's studies, and cultural studies. Indeed, Johnson's plays will appeal to anyone interested in the cultural history of the United States, since they comprise one of the earliest and most diverse collections of dramas by an African American woman. Although other African American women such as Pauline Hopkins, Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman, Angelina Weld Grimké, Mary P. Burrill, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote plays before Johnson, none were as prolific, as widely produced, nor as practiced in the dramatist's craft.

Johnson is a key figure in theatre history and her plays are landmark contributions to both African American theatre and American theatre in general. She wrote for community-based, nonprofit venues that offered alternatives to a predominantly white, male, and New York City-centered theatre; she was a pioneer in the national movement known as the New Negro theatre of the 1920s and 1930s; and she is the most prolific playwright in the American "lynching-drama" tradition.

The twelve one-acts collected here represent Johnson's dramatic oeuvre and reflect both her productivity and versatility as an early twentieth-century black playwright. In this introduction, the plays are examined as a body of work initiated within the distinct historical, cultural, and critical contexts of the New Negro era and continued at least until the mid-1950s. The plays are discussed in relation to the generic categories Johnson created for them and, when information is available, in relation to their conditions of production and reception.

The Plays: Sources

Johnson's typescripts for ten of the plays are in collections housed in academic or public institutions. Typescripts of Safe, A Sunday Morning in the South (black church version), A Sunday Morning in the South (white church version), Blue-Eyed Black Boy, William and Ellen Craft, and Frederick Douglass are all in the script files of the Federal Theatre Project at the Library of Congress. Both versions of A Sunday Morning in the South are published together for the first time here, along with the musical scores Johnson arranged for them. Paupaulekejo is in the Georgia Douglas Johnson Papers at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, and scripts for both Starting Point and Paupaulekejo are in the James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Typescripts of A Bill To Be Passed and And Yet They Paused, previously categorized as lost, were recovered by this author in 1999 in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Papers at the Library of Congress and are published here for the first time. A Bill To Be Passed and And Yet They Paused are essentially the same play, but with significant differences, especially the addition of a skit, Kill That Bill, attached to A Bill To Be Passed and written, not by Johnson, but by Robert E. Williams of the NAACP chapter in Cleveland, Ohio. The typescripts have been edited here for consistency of format and obvious spelling errors. The play Plumes (1927) is reprinted with permission from publisher Samuel French. Blue Blood, published in 1926 by Appleton- Century as a single play (Johnson retained the copyright), is reprinted from the copy in Johnson's papers at Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Johnson's radio play, Brotherhood, is lost but the music "Brotherhood Marching Song" (1945), written to accompany the play, is published here for the first time.

The collection is representative of Johnson's work as a playwright in that it reflects her preference for the one-act form; on the other hand, these twelve plays are less than half of her total dramatic output. In fact, according to her self-compiled "Catalogue of Writings" (copies at Moorland- Spingarn and the Library of Congress), Johnson wrote twenty-eight plays, most of them one-acts, that she arranged into four categories: "Radio Plays," "Primitive Life Plays," "Plays of Average Negro Life," and "Lynching Plays." Unfortunately, most of these works are lost. The transcript of an interview with Owen Dodson, former Howard University theatre professor and a friend of Johnson's, indicates that many of her unpublished manuscripts were discarded from her home following her funeral in 1966. Dodson remembers he "clearly saw manuscripts going into the garbage" and thinking, "a lifetime to the sanitation department!"

Fortunately, in November 1992 (twenty-six years after Johnson's death), Karen L. Jefferson and Joellen ElBashir, both from Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, were presented with the opportunity to rescue many of Johnson's papers that remained in her former home at 1461 S Street NW, Washington, D.C., before it was to be renovated and sold. According to ElBashir, curator at Moorland-Spingarn, four or five hours were spent collecting papers that eventually filled seven boxes. Among the many papers that were retrieved were a typescript of Johnson's play Paupaulekejo, a copy of her Catalogue of Writings, miscellaneous pages from earlier versions of the Catalogue, and correspondence with major Harlem Renaissance figures such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as with 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Zona Gale. Additional correspondence, relevant to Johnson's plays and dramatic productivity, is in collections at Atlanta University's Robert Woodruff Library, Yale University's Beinecke Library, and the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Most of Johnson's dramas are lost, but from her Catalogue, her extant plays, and her correspondence, it is possible to glean an outline of her contributions to the theatre and of her playwriting career.

Johnson as Playwright

Johnson's correspondence reveals her long career as a playwright who consistently sought feedback on her plays and struggled to see them published and produced. In reviewing and assessing Johnson's career as a dramatist, it is important to remember that she began writing plays during the 1920s, an era in which a black female playwright was an anomaly and when the groundbreaking theatrical successes of Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress were still decades away. As theatre historian Kathy Perkins points out, "the voice of the black woman playwright was slow to emerge because of racial and sexual barriers," and when Johnson's plays first appeared, "blacks were just learning the art of playwriting."

As an African American woman playwright, Johnson was a pioneer. She was a member of the group of black women who wrote before 1950 and who became visible for their achievements in community theatre and through the one-act playwriting contests sponsored by the journals Opportunity and The Crisis. Among this group of pioneering playwrights were Mary P. Burrill, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké, Marita Bonner, Eulalie Spence, May Miller, and Zora Neale Hurston. In fact, Johnson, Harlem playwright Eulalie Spence, and Howard University student Thelma Duncan were the only black women included among the twenty playwrights whose work was published in Alain Locke's groundbreaking 1927 anthology Plays of Negro Life: A Source-Book of Native American Drama. While Johnson is a constituent member of this pioneering sisterhood, she also stands apart from the group due to her lifelong dedication to writing plays and seeking outlets for their publication or production. Johnson's career as a playwright extends from the decades of the Harlem/New Negro Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century's civil rights movement.

As early as 1925 Johnson wrote to Howard University professor Alain Locke requesting his opinion of her recently completed Blue Blood, which she felt confident enough to describe as "a mighty good play." In 1926 she submitted Blue Blood to the one-act play contest for dramas on black life, sponsored by the Urban League's journal Opportunity, and won honorable mention; in 1927 her play Plumes was awarded the competition's first prize. Between 1935 and 1939 Johnson submitted at least five plays to the Work Project Administration's (WPA) Federal Theatre Project; in 1937 she informed her friend and Harlem Renaissance art patron Harold Jackman that four of her plays were with a Broadway producer who "writes me very favorably." In 1936 she sent several of her plays on lynching to NAACP leader Walter White, and in 1938 she contributed her playwriting skills to the organization's national antilynching campaign. By 1943 she had submitted an entire "book of plays" for "appraisal with a view to publication" to the Wendell Malliet publishing company in New York. Further correspondence with Harold Jackman reveals that Johnson continued to seek advice on publishing her book of plays in 1952, and as late as 1955 Johnson wrote to her friend Langston Hughes, thanking him for encouraging the "Phyllys [sic] Wheatly" YWCA to request one of her plays for production. Johnson's letter to Hughes, written the same year that Alice Childress's Trouble in Mind opened at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York, marks a period of transition in which the pioneering, community- centered one-act dramas, written by the black women playwrights of the Harlem/New Negro Renaissance, were eclipsed by the work of critically and commercially successful dramatists of the 1950s civil rights era such as Childress and Lorraine Hansberry. While Johnson was grateful for a YWCA production in 1955, Childress's play would win an Obie award for best original off-Broadway play, and Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun (1959) was only a few years away from its revolutionary Broadway debut. Johnson's playwriting career provides an important link in the history of black women playwrights; from the 1920s to the 1950s, she persevered in her craft and carried the "little theatre" spirit of the New Negro Renaissance to the brink of the civil rights movement.

By the time she tried her hand at playwriting, Johnson had already established her reputation as a poet with two published volumes, Heart of a Woman and Other Poems (1918) and Bronze: A Book of Verse (1922). Johnson began her career as a playwright through the encouragement of friends, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Zona Gale (Miss Lulu Bett, 1921). By the time Johnson sent her play Blue Blood to Alain Locke in 1925 she had already received a supportive response from Gale. Later, Johnson would dedicate her third volume of poetry to Gale, "whose appreciation, encouragement and helpful criticism have so heartened me." In addition to Gale's influence, the friendship Johnson developed with black women playwrights such as Mary P. Burrill, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson (who had all seen their plays published and/or produced) was most likely another factor in her decision to write plays, as was the opportunity for publication and recognition provided by the Crisis and Opportunity one-act play contests. The fact that her early plays, Blue Blood and Plumes, garnered public praise undoubtedly provided further encouragement for Johnson and perhaps, at the same time, prompted fellow playwright Willis Richardson to observe, "Georgia Johnson was a poet [until] she saw that people paid more attention to plays than poems." Johnson's own words from a July 1927 Opportunity interview suggest her career as a playwright was also driven by personal creative instincts: "I write because I love to write.... I was persuaded to try it [drama] and found it a living avenue and yet-the thing left most unfinished, less exploited, first relinquished, is still the nearest my heart and most dear."

Johnson's long career as a playwright shows she did not "relinquish" her dramatic endeavors but continued to work in the genre for financial possibilities as well as artistic reasons. Johnson's practical, business-oriented approach to dramatic writing is reflected in her 1951 letter to Langston Hughes inviting him to collaborate with her on a play or pageant to be used by the Elks Grand Lodge. In soliciting Hughes's collaboration, Johnson writes, "I'm sure you can understand the business of it." Although Hughes, citing previous commitments, turned down Johnson's offer to collaborate, he wrote, "I can see where it might be profitable ... as hard as things theatrical are to get on, everything that helps toward a living production should be done" and added, "I'm sure you can write it your self." Financial stability was a major concern for Johnson, especially after the 1925 death of her husband. As early as 1927 Johnson spoke of her "struggle to live beyond the reach of the Wolf 's fingers."

Shortly before her death Johnson finalized her Catalogue of Writings, which includes a synopsis for each of her twenty-eight plays, most of them unpublished. Noting the emphasis Johnson placed on her dramas in the Catalogue, scholar Gloria T. Hull observed, "were it not for the peculiarities of the genre and the vagaries of literary fortune, she [Johnson] could have just as easily come down through history known predominantly as a playwright rather than a poet." Johnson's Catalogue includes summaries of her books as well as lists of her short stories, songs, and organizations of affiliation, but the largest portion (five pages out of a total of eighteen) is devoted to the categorization and synopsis of her twenty-eight plays.

Johnson's Creative Environment: Washington, D.C., the New Negro Renaissance, and the Little Theatre Movement

Georgia Douglas Johnson (née Camp) was born of racially mixed parents in Atlanta, Georgia, attended the public schools of that city, and was a member of Atlanta University's Normal School class of 1893.26 Johnson subsequently taught school in Marietta, Georgia, and later in Atlanta. In 1902 she resigned her teaching position to pursue her interest in music and attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Years later Johnson would write, "Long years ago when the world was new for me, I dreamed of being a composer-wrote songs, many of them." Johnson wrote music from 1898 until 1959, and she incorporated music into several of her plays. A Sunday Morning in the South, A Bill To Be Passed, And Yet They Paused, Starting Point, and Brotherhood all include the sounds of hymns, spirituals, marches, or the blues, while Paupaulekejo, one of the era's earliest plays set in Africa, calls for the sounds of "jungle music."

After studying at Oberlin, Johnson returned to Atlanta, where she served briefly in the public school system as assistant principal. In 1903 she married Henry Lincoln Johnson, an Atlanta attorney, and in 1910 moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband and two young sons, Henry Lincoln Jr. (1906-1990) and Peter Douglas Johnson (1907-1957). Johnson lived in Washington until her death at Freedmen's Hospital in 1966.


Excerpted from The Plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson FROM THE NEW NEGRO RENAISSANCE TO THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT by Georgia Douglas Johnson Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Blue blood 63
Plumes 74
Frederick Douglass 85
William and Ellen Craft 94
Paupaulekejo 107
Starting point 118
A Sunday morning in the south (white church version) 129
A Sunday morning in the south (black church version) 139
Safe 154
Blue-eyed black boy 162
And yet they paused 168
A bill to be passed : including Kill that bill! 177
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