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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Negro Repertory Company

The Negro Repertory Company was one of the few all-African American theatre companies in the nation, and produced shows with other sections of the state Federal Theatre Project as well as their own, original productions. Shown here is a scene from the Negro Repertory Company's production of Stevedore. (Courtesy of the University of Washington Library, Special Collections Division.)

Seattle ’s Negro Repertory Company was part of what made the region’s Federal Theatre Project so historically significant. African American companies operated under the federal program in several cities, but except for the New York unit, none were as well known or as produced as many plays as the Seattle Negro Repertory Company. The brainchild of Florence and Burton James, the NRC provided opportunities for the development of African American theatre even as it was treated as a special yet unequal, part of Washington State’s theatre scene.

When Burton James failed to secure the directorship of the Federal Theatre Project for Region Five—a position that went to University of Washington professor Glenn Hughes—he and his wife, Florence James, dreamt up another way to be involved with the FTP. A talented actor/director combo, the Jameses were running an outstanding civic theatre, the Seattle Repertory, in the University district of Seattle. Though their productions were lauded for their artistic excellence, the Jameses struggled to make ends meet during the Depression. Involvement with the Federal Theatre Project would bring much-needed economic support to their endeavor. Pairing their interest in theatre with their progressive social commitments, the Jameses suggested the creation of a Negro Unit for Region Five, with the Seattle Repertory serving as their sponsoring organization. Hallie Flanagan, National Director of the Federal Theatre Project, was enthusiastic, and the Negro Repertory Company was formed in 1936.

The Negro Repertory Company was originally conceived as a temporary unit, with the Jameses contracted to mount two productions in five months’ time. Their second production about a longshoremen’s strike, Stevedore, changed everything. The Jameses wanted to keep this immensely powerful and popular production in their repertory for their annual summer drama festival. They negotiated with the FTP, which granted them the necessary permissions, so long as the Jameses would consent to another Negro Rep production. The Negro Repertory Company was off and rolling, though it still wasn’t granted the public legitimacy enjoyed by the all-white Tacoma Unit or the vaudeville actors’ Variety unit. When, in 1937, a long power struggle between the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Theatre Project came to a head over the suppression of the Negro Repertory Company’s “African” Lysistrata, FTP administration willingly sacrificed the NRC’s production in the name of peace with the WPA.

Though the Jameses would leave the FTP in 1937, the Negro Repertory Company did not dissolve at their departure. Indeed, it continued until the very end of the Federal Theatre Project in Washington State, in 1939. In 1937, Flanagan sent her protégée Esther Porter out to Seattle. Porter was placed in charge of the Negro Rep, and she employed them in productions for the newly formed Children’s Theatre branch of the FTP. By 1938, however, Porter was gone, and with diminishing FTP funds, the future of the NRC was uncertain. Without “supervisorship” from the FTP, the Negro Repertory Company took initiative on its own. A star member of the Company, Joe Staton, stepped into the director’s role, as the company collaboratively wrote, developed, and performed one of their most moving pieces An Evening with Dunbar. Though much praised for their performances, racial prejudice undercut positive reception of the Negro Repertory Company’s productions throughout the three years that they worked together. Notwithstanding racial prejudice and Seattle’s small African American population in the period (ranging from 4,000 to 5,000 individuals), the Negro Repertory Company comprised an exceptionally talented and tireless group of performers, whose output was exceeded only by that of the New York Negro Unit in the FTP.

Copyright (c) 2009, Sarah Guthu


Read illustrated histories of specific Negro Repertory Unit productions, written by Sarah Guthu:

Stevedore (1936)

This play about a longshoremen's strike brought white and black actors together onstage to portray the tenuous racial solidarities produced by labor struggle, and brought the fledgling NRC national recognition.

Lysistrata (1937)

The NRC developed an all-African American production of Aristophanes' classic political comedy, which produced a controversy between the national and local Federal Theatre Project leadership, and also displayed the paternalistic approach FTP officials held toward the Negro Repertory Company.

An Evening with Dunbar (1938)

NRC members collaboratively developed this production, based on the life of poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.