'Beauty Is the Best Priest: Short Plays of the Harlem Renaissance'

ACC Department of Drama polishes a few rare gems by black women playwrights

David Johns and Natasha Hakata
David Johns and Natasha Hakata
Photo courtesy of Jose Luis Bustamante

The "flowering of Negro literature" – a term ascribed to the great African-American poet and thinker James Weldon Johnson – saw a wealth of poems, plays, novels, and other written works penned between the First and Second World Wars. But beyond the work of Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, many of those treasures have been lost to time and still lie buried in the public consciousness. With the opening this week of Beauty is the Best Priest: Short Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, Austin Community College Department of Drama Chair Marcus McQuirter unearths a few of its gems, giving Austin a rare opportunity to see the groundbreaking theatrical fare that women of color were generating during this liberating era.

Much as he did with Adrienne Kennedy's once provocative, now neglected Funnyhouse of a Negro back in 2007, McQuirter has blown the dust off four one-acts from the early years of the Harlem Renaissance that were key in the artistic development of their authors and showed a remarkable daring in their treatment of racial themes. "Mine Eyes Have Seen," written by Alice Dunbar-Nelson in the waning days of World War I, focuses on the plight of African-Americans who are urged to defend their homeland in a time of war, even though their country considers them second-class citizens and subjects them to bigotry. The African-American heroine of Ottie Graham's 1923 drama "Holiday" is a star of the stage whose success has been achieved by passing for white and abandoning her daughter as a child. In 1925, May Miller, who would become the most widely published African-American female playwright of the period, launched her career with "The Bog Guide," a tale of a daughter seeking revenge for her father's death that folds into its narrative racism and biracial families in Africa. May's play took third place in the play category for Opportunity magazine's Literary Prize Contest. Second prize that year went to Hurston's "Color Struck," a complex look at the ways in which African-Americans judge one another by the darkness of their skin, with a black woman worried that her lover will leave her for a lighter-skinned woman.

As with Funnyhouse of a Negro, McQuirter will bring his sure directorial hand to the material, but he's also enlisted a trio of gifted collaborators to stage one one-act apiece: playwright/spoken word artist/actor/director Zell Miller III, writer/poet/performance artist Florinda Bryant, and the award-winning lead of Funnyhouse, Feliz Dia McDonald. Their participation definitely elevates this production from historical curiosity to theatrical essential. Plus, all proceeds benefit the Dance and Drama Scholarship Fund.

Beauty Is the Best Priest: Short Plays of the Harlem Renaissance runs Feb. 22-March 3, Friday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 2pm, at the Boyd Vance Theater, 1165 Angelina. For more information, call 223-3245 or visit www.austincc.edu/drama.

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