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Stages of Struggle, Celebrations

MIKE MCGEE | 11/7/2016, 9:31 a.m.
Stages of Struggle and Celebration: A Production History of Black Theater in Texas examines African American theater across the state, ...
Dr. Sandra M. Mayo and Dr. Elvin Holt TSU-San Marcos

Traveling, library research and online searches helped flesh out the past of the Black stages of Texas.

One discovery the authors made surprised them and demonstrated just how long Blacks have been actively involved with stage productions in the state.

“Sherman Dudley was a native of Dallas who was a minstrel performer,” Mayo said. “He was our very first playwright and he wrote his play in 1896.”

The professor said she was aware that African customs associated with dancing, drumming and storytelling survived even on plantations, and that African Americans were involved with minstrel shows, but the authors had no clue that Dudley’s effort, The Smart Set, was the first work of its kind.

“We were just amazed to find him in the 1890s, as not only an actor and a playwright, and he went on to organize a minstrel company of his own,” she said.

She added that Dudley’s touch could still be felt today. He helped organize the “chitlin circuit,” now called the urban circuit, which consisted of different stations throughout the U.S. where traveling Black talent would stop and perform.

“It’s the one Tyler Perry used to travel doing his shows before he got more involved with movies; it’s different places where there were Black audiences and they called it the chitlin circuit in the early days because it was segregated,” Mayo said.

When it comes to modern local theater, Mayo was equally impressed with TBAAL, which is celebrating its fortieth season.

“They started in Curtis King’s home as the Third World Players,” she remarked on the founder’s early efforts in getting the organization off the ground. “His is a rags-to-riches story, really, you know – pulling yourself up from the bootstraps, starting with nothing and making something amazingly wonderful,” she said of the group based out of the Dallas Convention Center Theater Complex.

“Oh my goodness, it is so impressive,” she said. “I mean, you walk in the lobby and say ‘wow,’ you know? Forty years. I’ve traveled the country, literally, and I’ve been outside of the country – to be correct, I’ve been in London and Africa, I’ve been everywhere; I’ve been in Canada – but I’ve haven’t seen a Black theater company with a location like that anywhere.”

Stages of Struggle and Celebration will remain on display at the library until Oct. 30, when the exhibition will travel to San Antonio and return to Fort Worth in January 2017.