The Negro Theater Project, 1935-1939
1935 proved to be a great year for Black Theater
FDR's Works Progress Administration (WPA), created
to put America back to work digging ditches, building
bridges, and creating parks decided, on a suggestion
from Eleanor Roosevelt, to employ actors, writers,
musicians and artists through a number of federal
projects. Among these were the Federal Writers Project,
The Federal Music Project, The Federal Art Project
and the Federal Theater Project. Eleanor Roosevelt
believed that actors were just as important to the
moral fabric of America as civil workers and supported
the main purpose of the project: to bring serious
drama to the masses and present plays about the
daily life of average Americans. The inclusion of
a "Negro" unit in the Federal Theater
Project was one of the most important developments
in the history of Black theater.
Before the WPA, Boston's black theater had been
under the direction of Maude Cuney Hare,
a transplanted Texan who started the Allied Arts
Players (1925-1930), Boston's first African American
semi-professional theater group. It gave talented
black actors a beginning in theater.
The "Boston Players" followed the Allied
Arts Players and was a more professional theater
troupe modeled after the Lafayette Theater in Harlem.
The "Boston Players" performed in and
around Boston and were signed to do a play by Paul
Green in New York City.
By 1935 Federal Theaters were established in major
cities across the country and many of the Boston
Players were placed on the payroll of the Negro
Federal Theater of Massachusetts. One of them, James
W. Henderson, was named an administrator and
assigned to the main office on Boylston Street,
allocating jobs, programs and services. Another,
Ralf Coleman, was appointed Director of the
entire Negro Federal Theater of Massachusetts, thus
becoming the first and only Black director in the
Federal Theater project.
The Black unit consisted of fifty dramatic actors
and actresses, also writers and playwrights. In
a 1960 interview Coleman declared that "this
was not welfare but pay for services rendered and
for the first and last time in the history of this
country, the government subsidized theater."
The project ended in 1939 amidst controversy of
possible Communist influence, when Congress shut
down funding for the entire Federal Theater.