By Hansi Lo Wang
An obscure but riveting genre of theater is being revived in New York City.
They’re called “anti-lynching plays.” Most were written during the early 1900s by black playwrights to show how lynchings devastated African-American families.
Inspired by the recent deaths of unarmed black men by police, a theater company in Brooklyn, N.Y., is staging a series of new readings of these plays, including Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Blue-Eyed Black Boy.
“It’s not a play where we reenact a lynching. The focus is not the gory details,” says Wi-Moto Nyoka, an actress featured in the readings. “This is a human take on our shared history.”
Lynchings were a common part of Southern life when these one-act plays were written. Magazines for the black community often published them so they could be performed in churches and schools or read aloud in homes, according to Koritha Mitchell, an English literature professor at Ohio State University who wrote about the plays in Living with Lynching.
“These plays were interested in saying, ‘Well, we’re being told every day that we are hunted because we’re a race of criminals, but in fact, the real reason that our neighbor was lynched was because he had land that whites wanted to take,’ ” Mitchell explains.
She adds that white mobs also targeted African-Americans with successful businesses or families.
“Being able to tell the truth about why communities are under siege was a really important counterpoint to a society that’s always telling you that you deserve whatever you get,” Mitchell says.