Lacking new theatre to write about, many arts journalists have been given to reveries: shows they loved, recaps of great musical numbers, shows seen in the past but perhaps forgotten today.
These pieces are interspersed with coverage of online efforts by theatre artists denied access to the stage and, increasingly, reports on how theatres are going to reflect their stated values of appreciating and giving opportunities to artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.
These themes led me on a circuitous route to a play I had never seen or read, a play I can’t recall ever being produced near where I was living. I was aware of its title, but beyond that, I was sorely ignorant. That play is The River Niger by Joseph A Walker.
This shouldn’t necessarily be an obscure play: it had 284 performances on Broadway in 1973, which followed a 120-performance run Off-Broadway. By any stretch of the imagination, this was a hit play. In fact, The River Niger won the Tony Award for best play, making Walker the first Black playwright to receive that honour.
This is by most conventional measures a seminal work of Black drama, but I daresay it is little known almost 50 years on; it hasn’t achieved the kind of recognition achieved by A Raisin in the Sun or August Wilson’s plays. There was a film, though it was not widely distributed; the cast included Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr. There have been scattered revivals: Concord Theatricals, which licenses the play, cited five productions between 2004 and 2017.
Granted, not every Tony Award winner holds up years later, and there are other winners and nominees that have been lost to time. But coming upon The River Niger, about a multi-generational family in Harlem (Los Angeles in the movie), decades later is like encountering a vivid link from Hansberry to Wilson: its South African romantic interest for the younger male lead is reminiscent of Beneatha’s attraction to Joseph Asagai in Raisin, while the long narrative poetry written by the patriarch in River prefigures the poetic monologues that are characteristic of Wilson’s work.
Prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests, my route to The River Niger began by thinking about the work of Black theatre artists who had never entered the mainstream of US theatre, or hadn’t held their place there. That yielded my look into the work fostered by the vital Negro Ensemble Company, which started in the late 1960s and remained prominent through the late 1980s. The River Niger was one of three NEC plays to reach Broadway, the others being Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer in 1975 and Samm-Art Williams’ Home, four years later, both of which received Tony nominations.
The best-known play to emerge from NEC was surely A Soldier’s Play from 1981, a Pulitzer Prize-winner which became better known for its film version, A Soldier’s Story. Following Off-Broadway revivals in 1996 and 2005, it reached Broadway this year, running until the coronavirus shuttered theatres everywhere. An anthology of plays from the company was published in the mid-1990s, but is sufficiently scarce to cost some $40 (£32) at used bookstores online.
The NEC was by no means the only source of new work by Black playwrights – in New York one can easily look to the work of Woodie King Jr’s New Federal Theatre to name another essential company. Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival (now The Public Theater) also gave space to Black playwrights; one early success was Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody, which ran for 250 performances and 300 more at the Promenade Theatre, both Off-Broadway, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for drama yet rarely seen today.
This work was emerging not just in New York but around the country – although being outside a major media market surely contributed to many works not breaking more fully into the public consciousness, let alone the theatrical canon.
As someone who has been diligently working to know the work of current Black playwrights (indeed all BIPOC theatre artists), including but by no means limited to Lynn Nottage, Danai Gurira, Jeremy O Harris, Dave Harris, Antoinette Nwandu, Dominique Morisseau, Aziza Barnes, Jocelyn Bioh, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, I also have to work backwards – especially during this forced sequestration – to better understand the theatrical heritage from which they emerged.
US theatres have begun to do more to widen the perspective of what is seen on our stages
The same should be true for literary managers and artistic directors, who may well have the same blinkered knowledge of the Black theatre canon as I do, since there is so much work that either never got widespread exposure or, in the case of a few pieces, garnered attention and then faded from view.
US theatres have begun to do more to widen the perspective of what is seen on our stages, but there is enormous opportunity for essential rediscovery, not simply as a dramaturgical deep dive, but as a corrective to overlooking those works when they were new. Black voices have always mattered, but the theatre often failed to hear them, or silenced them. There’s so very much to make up for and to celebrate.