Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal

By Kate Dossett

Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal

358 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 23 halftones

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5442-3
    Published: February 2020
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5441-6
    Published: February 2020
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5443-0
    Published: January 2020
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5735-4
    Published: January 2020

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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Awards & distinctions

2021 British Association of American Studies Book Prize

Between 1935 and 1939, the United States government paid out-of-work artists to write, act, and stage theatre as part of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a New Deal job relief program. In segregated “Negro Units” set up under the FTP, African American artists took on theatre work usually reserved for whites, staged black versions of “white” classics, and developed radical new dramas. In this fresh history of the FTP Negro Units, Kate Dossett examines what she calls the black performance community—a broad network of actors, dramatists, audiences, critics, and community activists—who made and remade black theatre manuscripts for the Negro Units and other theatre companies from New York to Seattle.

Tracing how African American playwrights and troupes developed these manuscripts and how they were then contested, revised, and reinterpreted, Dossett argues that these texts constitute an archive of black agency, and understanding their history allows us to consider black dramas on their own terms. The cultural and intellectual labor of black theatre artists was at the heart of radical politics in 1930s America, and their work became an important battleground in a turbulent decade.

About the Author

Kate Dossett is associate professor of history at the University of Leeds and the author of Bridging Race Divides: Black Nationalism, Feminism and Integration in the United States 1896–1935.
For more information about Kate Dossett, visit the Author Page.


“Theater productions from the 1930s by or about African Americans have often been marginalized, but Dossett . . . offers fresh insight into this subject.”--CHOICE

“A fascinating examination of the Black drama produced by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP)’s Negro Units in Harlem, Chicago, Hartford, and Seattle. . . . [Dossett] compellingly argues that Black drama created spaces, both literal and figurative, where Black Americans could express agency and enact visions for a new America.”—Journal of African American History

"Anyone who thinks they know the history of American theatre will have to read this book and think again. It's a revelation. The innovative force of black artists and theatre makers in this book will blow away any notion that radical theatre today needs to be invented. We already have a truly radical heritage to build on. Dossett shows us that our creative and intellectual life today is still shaped and informed by black theatre of the 1930s. Many of the plays discussed in this brilliant new book are not only fresh and visionary, but their sheer creative force is a challenge to the systems and ideologies that continue to oppress--and are as powerful and important as anything new being written for theatre today."--Naomi Wallace, author of One Flea Spare

"An interdisciplinary tour de force, Kate Dossett's trailblazing study of Black performance communities is a richly illuminating investigation into a revolutionary world. She works with Black theatre manuscripts not only to excavate but to examine the complicated, collaborative, and creative relationships experienced by playwrights, actors, directors, and audiences during the Federal Theatre era. In her powerful social, literary, cultural, and political history, she maps a myriad of Black acts of artistry, authorship, and activism to do hard-hitting justice to the pioneering ways in which Black performance communities 'imagined radical paths to the future.'"--Celeste-Marie Bernier, author of Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination

"Dossett offers a nuanced, finely textured account of the black theatre manuscripts, productions, and communities. Her conception of the archive, innovative research method, and the care and insight with which she reads the many black performance texts she so painstakingly brings together is nothing short of remarkable."--Sonnet Retman, author of Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression