American Negro Theatre

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American Negro Theatre


The American Negro Theatre (ANT) was founded in the Harlem section of New York City in 1940 by Abram Hill, a writer, and Frederick O'Neal, an actor. Their goal was to establish a community-based theater to provide opportunities for black theater artists, much as the Negro Units of the Federal Theatre Project had done before they were discontinued by Congress in 1939.

The theater was incorporated as a cooperative, and all members shared in expenses and profits, reflecting the theater's policy of emphasizing an ensemble style of acting rather than individual stars. Some officers were paid part-time salaries for their work through a Rockefeller Foundation grant, but most workers donated their time. Those who also performed outside the company paid 2 percent of their earnings to help keep ANT solvent. In 1942 Hill and O'Neal established the ANT Studio Theatre (the first black theater institution sanctioned by the New York State Board of Education) to train a new generation of black theater artists.

From 1940 through 1949, ANT produced nineteen plays, twelve of which were new. ANT's biggest success was Anna Lucasta (1944), but the production also sowed the seeds of the company's eventual failure. Based on a play by Philip Yordan about a Polish-American family, Hill and director Harry Gribble Wagstaff adapted it for a black cast. After a five-week run at ANT's theater in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, it moved to Broadway, where it played for two years, becoming the longest-running black drama in Broadway history. A national tour and a film followed, but ANT received no royalties from these, and only a small one from the Broadway production. In addition, the fact that only a few actors from the Harlem production were used on Broadway caused discord within the company, some of whose members became more interested in performing on Broadway than in Harlem. Anna Lucasta brought many critics to Harlem to see subsequent ANT productions, but their critical judgments were based on Broadway standards. The ANT seemed to change its standards as well, straying further and further from its original mission as a community based theater. After 1945 it produced plays by theater playwrights only, such as Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock (19451946), George Kaufman and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It With You (19451946), and John Synge's Riders to the Sea (19481949). Although ANT transferred three more plays to Broadway, they were not financially successful. With growing financial problems in the late 1940s, the ANT lacked the finances to mount complete productions. They turned, instead, to producing inexpensive variety shows and by 1949 had ceased production entirely.

A number of prominent black actors and writers began their careers in American Negro Theatre productions or in the Studio school. They include Ruby Dee, Lofton Mitchell, Alice Childress, Earl Hyman, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte.

See also Childress, Alice; Drama

Bibliography

Durham, Weldon, ed. American Theatre Companies, 1931 1986. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Walker, Ethel Pitts. "The American Negro Theatre." In The Theater of Black Americans, edited by Errol Hill. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

michael paller (1996)
Updated bibliography

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American Negro Theatre