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The Black Presence in Theater through the Centuries in the Historical Dictionary of African American Theater

In the following account the authors Anthony D. Hill, associate professor of drama at The Ohio State University, and Douglas Q. Barnett, director, producer, and founder of Black Arts/West in Seattle, discuss why they created the Historical Dictionary of African American Theater, the first comprehensive compendium of two centuries of blacks on stage.

Black theatre boasts award-winning playwrights, actors, directors, choreographers, designers, and theatre companies. It refined and redefined the popular minstrel tradition-Americas first pure form of entertainment. It helped to originate and shape Americas musical comedy format. It brought to the American stage a rich theatrical history and cultural practice, and captivated American as well as European audiences with its Charleston dance craze and rhythms. Due to social restrictions that created major barriers to its development, it took the fledgling African American theatre a few centuries longer to find its place within American theatre and popular entertainment.

Douglas Q. Barnett and I, both African American theatre practitioners from Seattle, Washington, were well aware of this rich black theatrical history but felt it was not easily accessible to the theatre community or the general public. We were also aware that there had been few directories or dictionaries about African American Theatre other than those written by noted theatre historians such as Henry T. Sampson, Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., and James V. Hatch that examine black theatre during the first half of the twentieth century. Sampsons The Ghost Walks is a chronology of the history of blacks in show business between 1865 and 1910. Peterson produced three dictionaries on early aspects of black theatre. The first described black theatre organizations, companies, theatres, and performing groups; the second discussed early black American playwrights and dramatic writers; and the third profiled performers and theatre people. In addition, Professor Hatch and Edward Mapp expanded their study on black

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