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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Giving Voice

Theater

The art of African American theater is rooted in the impulse to tell stories that express one's unique culture. During the Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of tremendous artistic output by African Americans, a Black modern theater developed. Black artists sought to construct alternatives to the predominant stereotypes that flooded American culture.

Playwrights and performers crafted characters and plots based on real events and real places, and took control of stories that reflected the Black community. Similarly, the dramatists and playwrights of the Black Arts Movement created a distinctive style that not only voiced political issues, but also expressed an African American perspective on the American experience. They frequently set their plays in barbershops, street corners, and other social spaces in which Blacks could freely express themselves.

Featured Participants

Holly Bass, Washington, D.C.
Based in Washington, Bass is a hip-hop theater performer, spoken-word artist, and dancer who studied modern dance at Sarah Lawrence College and journalism at Columbia University. In addition to acting in productions at the Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theater, and the Kennedy Center, she is a published poet and writer who coined the term "hip-hop theater."

Roger Guenveur Smith, Los Angeles, California
Roger Guenveur Smith is a writer, director, and actor who has appeared in film, television, and stage productions. His credits include Do The Right Thing, the film adaptation of his own award-winning play A Huey P. Newton Story, and (as writer, director, and actor) Frederick Douglass NOW.

Left: Paul Robeson, shown here playing Othello on Broadway in 1943-44, electrified the stage.
Right: Paul Robeson, shown here playing Othello—with Uta Hagen as Desdemona—on Broadway in 1943-44. Photos courtesy of Library of Congress.