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Experiments in Democracy

Experiments in Democracy

Interracial and Cross-Cultural Exchange in American Theatre, 1912-1945

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Edited by Cheryl Black and Jonathan Shandell


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
320 pages, 6 x 9, 22 illustrations

Theater in the Americas


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About the Book

In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of American theatres and theatre artists fostered interracial collaboration and socialization on stage, behind the scenes, and among audiences. In an era marked by entrenched racial segregation and inequality, these artists used performance to bridge America’s persistent racial divide and to bring African American, Latino/Latina, Asian American, Native American, and Jewish American communities and traditions into the nation’s broader cultural conversation.
In Experiments in Democracy, edited by Cheryl Black and Jonathan Shandell, theatre historians examine a wide range of performances—from Broadway, folk plays and dance productions to scripted political rallies and radio dramas. Contributors look at such diverse groups as the Theatre Union, La Unión Martí-Maceo, and the American Negro Theatre, as well as individual playwrights and their works, including Theodore Browne’s folk opera Natural Man, Josefina Niggli’s Soldadera, and playwright Lynn Riggs’s Cherokee Night and Green Grow the Lilacs (the basis for the musical Oklahoma!). Exploring the ways progressive artists sought to connect isolated racial and cultural groups in pursuit of a more just and democratic society, contributors take into account the blind spots, compromised methods, and unacknowledged biases at play in their practices and strategies. Essays demonstrate how the gap between the ideal of American democracy and its practice—mired in entrenched systems of white privilege, economic inequality, and social prejudice—complicated the work of these artists.
Focusing on questions of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality on the stage in the decades preceding the Civil Rights era, Experiments in Democracy fills an important gap in our understanding of the history of the American stage—and sheds light on these still-relevant questions in contemporary American society. 


Cheryl Black is a professor of theatre, the director of graduate studies, and the Catherine Paine Middlebush Chair in Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Missouri. She is the author of The Women of Provincetown, 1915–1922, as well as essays published in Staging a Cultural Paradigm: The Political and the Personal in American Drama; Feminist Theatrical Revisions of Classic Works; and Violence in American Drama: Essays on Its Staging, Meaning, and Effects.  She is the president of the American Theatre and Drama Society and a fellow of the Mid-America Theatre Conference.
Jonathan Shandell is an associate professor of theatre arts at Arcadia University. His scholarship on race and integration on the twentieth-century American stage has been published in the anthologies The Cambridge Companion to African American Theater and Authentic Blackness-“Real” Blackness: Essays on the Meaning of Blackness in Literature and Culture. He served as the president of the Black Theatre Association from 2014 to 2016.

Contributors include Garrett Eisler, Harry J. Elam Jr., Anne Fletcher, Stuart J. Hecht, Lisa Jackson-Schebetta, Ju Yon Kim, Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez, Eric Mayer-García, Andrea Nouryeh, Elizabeth A. Osborne, W. Douglas Powers, and Margaret F. Savilonis.


“[This book] brings fresh perspectives to interracial and cross-cultural exchange in the American theatre during the first half of the twentieth century . . . [and will] appeal to both scholars and general readers interested in US theatre history, political history, and social sciences such as ethnic studies.”—Jorge A. Huerta, author of Chicano Theater: Themes and Forms and Chicano Drama: Performance, Society, and Myth
“Cheryl Black and Jonathan Shandell’s fascinating collection convincingly makes the case that the roots of interracial and cross-cultural American theatre can be traced back to the work of early twentieth-century artists . . . [P]rominent theatre historians demonstrate[] how the performing arts served as a medium to express a widely held curiosity about race, revise popular ethnic stereotypes, and, ultimately, reflect the diversity of the nation.”—Harvey Young, author of Theatre and Race

This anthology comprises essays that consider cross-cultural borrowings in US theater in the decades prior to World War II. Unlike other recent scholarship that has focused mainly on ethnocentric inquiries, this collection probes the political possibilities of interracial “cross-fertilization” on the US stage. The essays consider a range of plays and performances, including Paul Robeson’s role in Othello, the performance of Chinese exclusion in The Yellow Jacket, and race and citizenship in teatro vernaculo. --American Literature