Slavery, Performance, and the Design of African American Theatre

Posted by on Monday, January 29, 2018 in Essay Discussions.

Essential Questions: Why is it important that black theatre be shaped by the black experience as opposed to the perception of black culture by white people? Do audiences respond better with watered down narratives of black hardships, or is authenticity the key to success?

About the Author 

  • Hey Essin…are you a divorcee? Because I am single and ready to mingle.

    Douglas Jones is an associate professor of English at Rutgers University.

  • He works on African American literatures of the eighteenth and nineteen centuries, drama and performance studies, and cultural histories of slavery in British North American and the US.
  • This is the first chapter of a compilation of essays  titled The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre which chronicles the evolution of African American theatre from the early nineteenth century to today.
  • He’s black.

Summary and Evidence

Jones main argument is that “black performance that emerged during the time of slavery continues to inform how we imagine the form and function of the African American theatre and, more generally, black cultural production.”

  • Since slaves were forced to sing and dance on board the Middle Passage, they had to work across clan and tribal lines to create and survive their performances. This formed a new sort of racial solidarity which would become an important political and social strategy.
  • “Performance fostered racial solidarity in the face of captivity and across ethnic, linguistic, and geographical lines of difference.”
  • Performance archived the slave experience and thereby maintained bonds of racial solidarity.
  • Not only was performance used to externalize the plight of the slaves, but it also served as a kind of facade forced onto them in order to make it look as though plantations were a sort of utopia to Northern observers.
  • White people elevated their whiteness when they watched the forced performance of black slaves because they got to see white mastery on display.
  • Slave performances helped facilitate the transformation between black sorrow to black opposition.
  • William Alexander Brown opened the first African American theatre in New York City catered toward black people, representing one of the many forms of oppositional culture. Because of his challenging of the status quo, there was a violent response from white people causing yet another reason for black communities to instill distrust in black theatre.


  • Frederick Douglass wrote about the humanizing and melancholy nature of black performance. How might the implications of witnessing the same performance be different if reflected on by a white person?
  • From Middle Passage performances and slave auction shows to minstrelsies how has the white man exercised his domination over African American performance?
  • What are the ways in which black performance both hurt and benefited the black narrative in America, and how could this lead to the ambivalence of theatre in the black community?
  • The chapter states that “Brown’s theatre did not operate under a constitution, a roll of officers, and other conventional trappings of antebellum benevolent societies.” How does Brown’s collectivist approach to running a theatre indicate his acknowledgement of the black rebellion against hierarchical social structures?
  • Jones states that Brown, his performers, and his public provoked white rancor and violence. Why was Brown’s theatre pose such a threat to white people?
  • Despite the increasingly diverse presence of actors on stage, the audience is still disproportionately white and wealthy. Do you think this reflects the black ambivalence Jones argues in his essay, or does it show the continuous cycle of white spectatorship of black performance? How does black performance work with the idea that they are performing for a largely white audience?


“Douglas A. Jones .” Rutgers English Faculty, Rutgers University,

“Slavery, performance, and the design of African American theatre (Chapter 1) – The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press,

“The Broadway League Reveals “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience” for the 2016-17 Season.” The Broadway League, 9 Jan. 2018,

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Black theatre.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 23 Feb. 2017,

Leave a Reply