Dr. Shandell’s New Book Focuses on African American Theater in the 1940s and 50s

By Caitlin Burns | February 19, 2019

Dr. Shandell speaks to a group about his book.

Dr. Jonathan Shandell, associate professor of Visual and Performing Arts, discussed themes and the artist’s struggle during a reading and signing of his recent book, The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era, on Feb. 13.

The American Negro Theatre, a theater in Harlem during the 1940’s for African American artists and audiences, has been a research topic of Dr. Shandell’s for nearly 11 years, and started as his dissertation topic. He described his work as a “pretty lonely sandbox,” representing the little research done on the 1940s and 50s African American theater and its influence on identity.

“The history of this theater had never been fully documented before, and I hope my book contributes to our understanding of its history, especially African American theater history at that time,” said Dr. Shandell. “A bunch of people who later became quite famous and renowned, like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, and others, got their start in this theater. My writing attempts to think about how the work of the American Negro Theatre prepared them for later in their careers.”

Dr. Shandell explains that in the 1940s and 50s, artistic works and successes like the American Negro Theatre were seen as “either integrationist, or staying true to your ethnic identity.” He instead makes the argument that “people can be proud of what makes them different, and be looking for inclusion.” Dr. Shandell tells the story of how cultural groups who achieve mainstream artistic success often need to change their art to appeal to a wider audience, but that changed art does not necessarily have to become inauthentic.

“I think that African American artists, in particular, think about and struggle with to what extent their art speaks to American American audiences in particular ways, that may not necessarily attract a wider public, and in what ways is their art trying to be more inclusive, which may open them up to the criticism that they may not be speaking a ‘truth’ to their racial identity,” said Dr. Shandell. “That’s the fundamental dynamic that the book is really addressing. That’s what this theater was going through, and I think a lot of artists have to go through it in some form. That’s one reason the history of this theater interests me.”

One work that Dr. Shandell specifically focused his presentation on was the play “Anna Lucasta,” which he said was a groundbreaking performance that started in The American Negro Theatre and went on to Broadway for two years. Unlike many plays at the time, “Anna Lucasta” had serious, well-rounded African American characters that advanced civil rights by awakening white audiences that “laid down the foundations for conversations on civil rights,” said Dr. Shandell.

“Back in the 1940’s, that just wasn’t very common, as plays that made it to Broadway with black characters were often very stereotyped or they were the servants, something like that,” said Dr. Shandell. “This play was important in advancing the fact that African American actors could act serious roles and could be part of a play that was very successful. Good race representation in theater pushes the country forward and inspires change.”

Dr. Shandell plans on continuing his research on the topic, and has embarked on exploring race in Philadelphia theater.

“There’s a lot of theater history centers in New York, and I think that Philadelphia as a city with a theater history has not gotten a whole lot of attention,” said Dr. Shandell. “I’m interested in what I might learn if I delve into that, but I’m in the very beginning stages of that process.”