Performing Diasporic Time: Enactments of African American History

Julie Burrell is an Associate Professor of English, Black Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies at Cleveland State University, where she teaches courses in African American literature and drama. Her monograph, The Civil Rights Theatre Movement in New York, 1939-1966: Staging Freedom (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), examines the intersections of political theatre and the black freedom movement. Her essays have appeared in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Theatre History Studies, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, and Continuum: The Journal of African Diaspora Drama, Theatre and Performance.  She was a Rose fellowship in support of her research on Performing Diasporic Time: Enactments of African American History.

Thank you to the kind and dedicated librarians and staff of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, who made my visit not only productive, but joyful. I would also like to thank Laura Branca, Theodore Ward’s daughter, for granting an interview. Her impressions of her father and her insightful interpretations of his plays inform my understanding of Ward’s work.

Theodore Ward (1902-1983) is one of the most important African American playwrights of the last century, particularly for his contributions to historical drama. He is best known today for his play Big White Fog, first performed in 1938 under the aegis of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. Blacklisted during the Cold War and surveilled by the FBI,[i] Ward nevertheless continued to write and revise dramas as well as work on an unpublished autobiography until his death in 1983. A prolific writer of at least nineteen dramas, Ward took historical African Americans as his main subjects, seeing Black history as a series of epic dramatic tales that had never received full consideration by the U.S. public. Deeply researched, Ward’s dramas consider how ordinary people behaved in the extraordinary circumstances of history: from slave revolts, to Reconstruction, to the contemporary labor movement. Black people played a central role in U.S. and world history, Ward avers, and without understanding that, we cannot understand history at all. This is a viewpoint Ward shared with W. E. B. Du Bois, who Ward knew, and whose work in Black Reconstruction in America Ward would draw on for his own historiographical theories.

Ward’s papers contain rich biographical information on the playwright, distilled from Camille Billops’s interview with Ward and compiled by James V. Hatch into an article for the influential journal Freedomways. Ward was born in 1902 in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, but left home as a young man after his mother died. After traveling the country working at occupations such as bellboy and barber, Ward eventually settled in Chicago — a final stop for many of those undertaking the Great Migration — which is where he would remain for much of his life. Ward was a part of the Chicago Renaissance and a member of the famed South Side Writers’ Group, which included Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Frank Marshall Davis. Alongside these fellow Leftist writers, Ward developed Big White Fog, which premiered in Chicago and was later performed in New York City. Though Big White Fog was acclaimed, Ward’s standing as a leading dramatist would soon be erased by both blacklisting and what Hatch called “benign neglect.”[ii] Ward’s work and legacy were revitalized in the 1970’s for two reasons, as the correspondence between Ward and Hatch shows. First, when Hatch became Ward’s literary agent, the two men began working together in earnest to get Ward’s unpublished work into print and to mount productions of Ward’s plays, especially those that had yet to be produced. Second, the Black Arts and Power Movements changed the cultural landscape in fundamental ways. Once considered too radical, Ward was now championed by organizations like the Free Southern Theater and Black theatre groups on college campuses and in major cities as a critical forebear of the Black Arts Movement and as an advocate of the Black working class. 

It wasn’t until the 1970’s, in other words, that the tide shifted enough for Ward to emerge from the long shadow of anti-Communism and McCarthyism. This reactionary right-wing movement attempted to smother the writing of African American authors, including Ward’s peers Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Childress, and Langston Hughes. Theatre artists like Ward were particularly vulnerable to repression since they need organizations like theatre groups and physical theatre spaces to see their work realized. Left-leaning groups were often forced to shutter these theatres, while commercial theatre was no longer interested in “the Negro Problem” and began to focus on lighter entertainment after World War II. Moreover, Ward refused to bend his artistic vision to suit U.S.-grown fascism. Ward was first embroiled in controversy during the production of the Federal Theatre-sponsored Big White Fog. A precursor to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Big White Fog centers on the working-class Mason family and their struggles to resist racial and economic repression during the Great Depression. Ultimately, the Mason’s eldest son commits himself to interracial Communism, while the eldest daughter sells sex to a white man to keep her family from being evicted—the two elements that that generated the most debate. Writing after the premiere of Big White Fog in 1938, a Chicago Daily Times critic reported that both police and censors attended its dress rehearsal, “after several weeks of backstage whispers concerning the play’s ‘subversive influences’ and its tendency to fan into white heat again the embers of racial strife.”[iii] If authorities were worried about Communist influences in Big White Fog, Black residents of the South Side were more concerned about “Ward’s portraits of defeated black men and transgressive black women,” according to theatre historian Kate Dossett.[iv] Black audiences objected to what they believed were negative portrayals of themselves, but Ward believed he realistically portrayed the struggles of African Americans on the South Side of Chicago.

Ward’s next major production was Our Lan’, which premiered off-Broadway in 1947 and then moved to Broadway. Ward’s drama follows a fictional group of newly freed ex-slaves after they are granted forty acres of land by General Sherman. As they cultivate cotton on the Sea Islands, the freedmen and their leader, Joshuah, sell their labor freely and dictate the course of their own, and their families’, lives and happiness for the first time. Yet, after Lincoln’s assassination and before Radical Reconstruction, the group is betrayed by the government and ordered to become sharecroppers or else vacate the land. They rebel. In Our Lan’, Ward was both responding to and helping shape a revolution in Civil War and Reconstruction historiography—initiated by Marxist historians, including Du Bois—whose purpose it was to challenge the Lost Cause narrative underpinning white supremacist histories of the era. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Our Lan’ received renewed interest in the more radical climate of the 1970’s, and productions were mounted at the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans (where Ward served as playwright-in-residence), colleges and universities, and even in an elementary school in Chicago.[v] In his letters to Hatch and to directors interested in producing the play, Ward is careful to articulate what he sees as the fundamental truth of Our Lan’: “the struggle of the ex-slaves for land at the end of the Civil War,” and ultimately, “the need for a fight, if necessary, to the death for ownership of the land.”[vi]

Ward’s papers show that his interest in Reconstruction was abiding and comprehensive. One of the most exciting moments I had reading Ward’s scripts was encountering Candle in the Wind (c. 1966). While Our Lan’ focuses on the Utopian longings of newly freed slaves at the outset of Emancipation, Candle in the Wind relates the story of the final, tragic days of Reconstruction, when African Americans were abandoned by the federal government and left to face Klan violence with little to no protection. Candle in the Wind centers on Mississippi State Senator Charles Caldwell, a mixed-race man born into slavery, who attempts to secure the gains of Reconstruction. Refusing to flee his home under the threat of white supremacist terrorism, Caldwell was ambushed and assassinated on Christmas Day, 1875. As with Our Lan’, Ward draws on radical and Marxist historians (in this case, Herbert Aptheker) to correct prevailing assumptions about the Reconstruction period. African American statesmen were not unqualified for office—contrary to the slander of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—but were heroic, if tragic, figures. During Reconstruction, Candle in the Wind shows, African Americans attempted to make real the promises of democracy, but were terrorized, betrayed, and murdered by a corrupt Democratic Party and the Klan, along with the less malicious, but no less murderous, inaction of liberal whites. To Ward’s chagrin, Candle in the Wind, and the majority of his dramatic writing, has never been published. His work therefore remains understudied, which makes the Billops-Hatch Collection all the more valuable for researchers and theatre historians. Yet Ward’s influence is indisputable. It’s difficult to imagine Hansberry’s social realism in A Raisin in the Sun or the experimental history plays of Lydia R. Diamond, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Robert O’Hara, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins without Ward’s model. This is not only because of Ward’s playwriting, but also due to his mentorship and teaching, which resonates in the volume Seven Black Plays: The Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwriting. A giant of the U.S. theatre, Ward dedicated himself to the ordinary and the everyday struggles of the working class to resist fascism and tyranny and imagine a more just and beautiful world.

[i] Ward’s 289-page FBI file was requested by scholar William J. Maxwell and can be read at

[ii]James V. Hatch, “Theodore Ward: Black American Playwright.” A Freedomways Reader: Afro-America in the Seventies. New York: International Publishers, 1977. 64-68.

[iii] Theodore Ward collection, 1937-2009, Manuscript Collection No. 1166, Box 1, Folder 20. Gail Borden, “Negro Play Doesn’t Fan Racial Hate,” Daily Times (Chicago), 8 April 1938.

[iv] Kate Dossett, Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 164.

[v] See Michelle Y. Gordon, “Theodore Ward and the Black Arts Movement,” James Weldon Johnson Institute Colloquium Series (Emory University, Atlanta, GA, April 11, 2016),

[vi] Theodore Ward collection, 1937-2009, Manuscript Collection No. 1166, Box 1, Folder 7. Letter to James V. Hatch from Theodore Ward, 18 August 1976.