Photo credits: The Black Heritage Society Collection
The Negro Repertory Company (NRC) was established on October 27, 1936, by Florence and James Burton, directors of the Repertory Playhouse of Seattle, Washington (SRP).
The NRC was the Black unit of the Federal Theatre Program (FTP), a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In its short life, the NRC produced ambitious and controversial plays that reached a wide audience of whites and blacks. Most of its plays were adapted to include songs and choruses that the Burtons felt were appropriate for the “negro method of expression. The Seattle-based NRC’s use of mixed-race casts seemed to have hardly any of the problems, which plagued the other 13 Black units nationwide.
The NRC’s inaugural performance, a musical adaptation of the play “Noah,” was well-received by critics and audiences alike. Their second production, “Stevedore,” a mixed-race, “agitprop” play encouraging unionization of black and white workers, opened during a waterfront strike. Longshoremen bought out the house and were so involved with the play that some jumped on stage to help actors erect barricades.
The third play, “Swing Gates Swing,” was written and scored by the NRC. Their final show of 1936 was an adaptation of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.” This show opened with a cast of 50 performers and a wildly appreciative audience of 1,000. It was closed the following night for being “immoral, indecent, and bawdy.” However, it seems private theatre owners put pressure on the FTP to close a surefire hit which threatened their profits.
Before the NRC was abolished by Congress in 1939, they had mounted 15 total productions, including an African American version of “It Can’t Happen Here.” This play was based on Sinclair Lewis’ anti-fascist novel of the same name, which opened during October of 1936 in 18 cities across the U.S.
In mounting shows like “Androcles and the Lion” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” among others, the NRC utilized five percent of the African American population of Seattle as paid actors, technicians, and volunteers.
Reference: Ott, C. (2007, January 26) Negro Repertory Company (Seattle) 1936-1939. Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/negro-repertory-company-seattle-1936-1939/
Research source: E.A. Johnson, “A Production History of the Seattle Federal Theatre Project Negro Repertory Company: 1935-1939” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1981).
*BlackThen.com writer and historian Victor Trammell edited and contributed to this report.