By Neena Arndt
Meet a few contemporaries of Arthur Miller—three 20th century Black playwrights who lived and worked at the same time, but who did not enjoy the same privileges in their career ascent. Like Miller, these artists wrote compelling plays that dealt with American life in both universal and specific ways. We explore just a few of their lives here.
EULALIE SPENCE Born in the British West Indies in 1891, Spence became a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance. She described herself as a “folk dramatist” whose plays aimed to entertain rather than make political statements; nonetheless, critic Elizabeth Brown-Guillory later credited her with “initiating feminism in plays by black women.” In Undertow, Spence explores what happens when a woman reenters the life of her unhappily married ex-lover.
SHIRLEY GRAHAM Born in Indianapolis in 1896, Graham studied music at the Sorbonne in Paris before returning to the United States to work as a composer, playwright and activist. Her works explored history from the viewpoint of Black women, serving as a counterpoint to the predominant white narrative. In It’s Morning, Graham writes about an enslaved woman who wonders whether it would be better for her infant child to die than to live in slavery.
You can find both Undertow and It’s Morning, plus other works by these writers and other Black women writers, in the anthology Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950, edited by Kathy A. Perkins.
JAMES BALDWIN Perhaps best known as an essayist and novelist, Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. His work addresses issues of race, class and sexual identity in the context of mid-20th century America. His plays include The Amen Corner, which explores the impact of religion and family on a Black matriarch. You can find The Amen Corner in the anthology Black Theatre USA: Plays by African Americans 1847-Today, edited by Ted Shine.
- Portrait of Shirley Graham (1896-1977), later Shirley Graham Du Bois, by Carl Van Vechten, taken July 18, 1946.
- James Baldwin, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1955