The Ethiopian Art Theatre/Players

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The Ethiopian Art Theatre, originally called the Chicago Folk Theatre, and later the Colored Folk Theatre was an African American theatre company based out of Chicago, Illinois.[1] They are also sometimes referenced as The Ethiopian Art Players. The Ethoipian Art Theatre was a significant but short lived (1922/1923-1925) theatre company founded during the Harlem Renaissance. There is some historical dispute as to which year the company was originally founded 1922 or 1923. The Ethiopian Art Theatre was founded by Raymond O'Neil, a white theatre director, and sponsored by Mrs. Sherwood Anderson, also white, though all of the performers in the company were African American. This group was unique and controversial for its time for being one of the few African American Theatre Companies to perform European theatrical pieces, and was known for producing work from African American writers for African American and Non-African American audiences.

The Aim of The Ethiopian Art Theater[edit]

The aims of the group, as stated in the Crisis (4-1923, p. 251), were:

  • 1) to "attempt only those dramatic pieces which have a universal appeal and are as true for the colored people as for the white and yellow races";
  • 2) to "do all we can do to encourage both colored and white in the creation of a Negro dramatic literature";

-and-

  • 3) "if [this] venture succeeds,...to lend its experience to groups in larger Negro cities [sic] or any that wish to establish similar theatres in their communities."[1]

Plays Produced[edit]

  • George, by D.B. Bowerfind[2]

The Chip Woman's Fortune[edit]

Along with The Ethiopian Art Theatre's European theatrical repertoire the group was also committed to performing works by African American playwrights. The company, "requested help from The Crisis, the official publication for the National Association for the advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P). W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of The Crisis, recommended Willis Richardson, who had won two of its annual literary contests, and the company chose Richards one-act play The Chip Woman's Fortune."[3] The Chip Woman's Fortune, opened on [sic] 7 May 1923 at the Frazee Theatre,"[4] The play, "centered around a critical incident in the life of a poor African American family and was [also] the first non-musical presented by an African American theatre company on Broadway."[3] The Chip Woman was not a financial success but W.E.B DuBois wrote in The Crisis, "The Negro Drama in America took another step forward when The Ethiopian Art Players under Raymond O'Neil, came to Broadway, New York. Financially the experiment was a failure; but dramatically and spiritually it was one of the greatest successes this country as ever seen." [5]

Controversy[edit]

In the brief time span of The Ethiopian Art Theatre the group managed to stir up quite a bit of controversy that challenged the established American Theatre. The biggest controversy came from, "external conflicts...when the show opened in New York on 7 May 1923, it faced enforced segregated seating at Broadway's Frazee Theatre. The African American Press and many in the audience were given seats in the balcony, but they, "flatly refused to occupy them." Eventually the management withdrew segregated seating and the performance continued for two weeks before returning to Harlem."[6] David Krasner writes, "[m]any attendees of the opening night's performance had to be forcibly removed from the theatre, while others interrupted with "laughter and loud talk" during "the climax of the play."[6]

Another point of tension between the company , the New York City Critics and the greater New York theatre establishment was the fact that The Ethiopian Theatre Company chose to perform works such as Oscar Wilde's Salome and William Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, that, at the time, were not thought to be plays for African American performers and that cut in on the financial gains of other theatre companies who felt that ethically they had exclusive rights to European works. Instead of playing exclusively for audiences in Harlem The Ethiopian Art Theatre chose ambitiously to work within the mainstream New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago theatre systems that, due to both social and financial segregation, primarily catered to white audiences.

O'Neil, also caused internal and external strife, when he couldn't decide which pieces from the company's repertoire to perform. "O'Neil eager to capitalize on the "novelty" of African American actors in "mainstream" plays, frequently switched shows at the last minute. Audiences, purchasing tickets with the guarantee for a particular show, were infuriated at discovering that the bill had been switched at curtain time and another show was being offered. This not only angered the audience, it upset the actors, who only at the last minute learned what show they would perform. As a consequence the acting suffered and the Broadway productions received mixed reviews."[6]

The Curtain Closes[edit]

"With only modest success, they [The Ethiopian Art Theatre] opened on Broadway for only two weeks and then returned to Lafayette before closing their New York engagement and disbanding entirely."[6] The company gave raise to several noteworthy careers such as: Evelyn Preer (1896–1932) who was considered a "pioneer in the cinema world for colored women",[6] Sidney Kirkpatrick, Marion Taylor, Laura Bowman, Solomon Bruce and Aurthur Ray. Many of these performers went on to join other notable theatre companies such and the Lafayette Players. The Ethiopian Art Theatre Company never, "sterotype[d] African American's as drunks, prostitutes, criminals or clowns who grin[ned] and sham[med] their way through life. [They] not only performed classical European works and opened the door to mainstream professional theatre to African American performers, but the company also opened doors for realistic plays about African American life,"[3] to mainstream audiences.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Peterson, Bernard L. The African American Theatre Directory 1816-1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Black Theatre Organizations, Companies, Theatres, and Performing Groups. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997.
  2. ^ a b c Addell Austin Anderson (1992). "The Ethiopian Art Theatre". Theatre Survey 33: 132–143. doi:10.1017/S0040557400002362. 
  3. ^ a b c Wintz, Cary D. and Paul Finkelman. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  4. ^ Hill, Errol G. and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2003, in New York City.
  5. ^ Dubois, W.E.B.. "The Ethiopian Art Theatre." The Crisis July 1923: 103-104.
  6. ^ a b c d e Krasner, David. A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1927. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002.

External links[edit]