Actors R. Hamilton Wright, Malcolm J. West, Arlando Smith, and Dedra D. Woods portray the historical Negro Repertory Company

Reginald André Jackson Looks Back on the History of Black Theater

by Amanda Ong

In his first play to see production, Seattle-based actor and playwright Reginald André Jackson’s History of Theatre: About, By, For, and Near just finished its run at ACT Theatre from Jan. 28 to Feb. 12. History of Theatre takes its audience back in time, in a creative approach, to introduce us to the Black theater artists who have made history in America, and it even covers Black theater history right here in the Pacific Northwest. History of Theatre was directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, founding artistic director of The Hansberry Project, a collaborator in the play’s development. 

“We started talking about how to respond to what was happening in the culture during the [pandemic] shutdown,” Jackson said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “And so we started these conversations about how to address what was going on, and what it meant for the theater. And so the best way to do that was to look at history.”

Actor Dedra D. Woods stands on-stage in front of the rest of the History of Theatre ensemble
Actor Dedra D. Woods stands in front of the rest of the History of Theatre ensemble. Woods plays Sister Blacknell, our modern guide along our time-traveling journey. (Photo: Robert Wade)

Using the character Sister Blacknall, a modern Black theater artist making her way through the world, as our host, we travel back in time to the 1820s through the 1930s in the United States. There, we meet the Rabbit’s Foot founder Pat Chappelle, who created the first all-Black touring vaudeville troupe in 1900; the actors Ira Aldridge and Rose McClendon; as well as world-renowned actors, like Paul Robeson, and begin to understand how they pushed back and were able to be creative despite the racism they faced. 

Among other stops in Black theater history, the play visits the Negro Repertory Company, which was founded in the 1930s as part of the Federal Theatre Project, an arts project under the Works Progress Administration — an FDR-era program that operated during the Great Depression. The Negro Repertory Company operated right out of Seattle’s University District.

“I didnt know until I started really doing this research that [the Negro Repertory Company was] here, just in the U-District,” said Jackson. He conducted research for the play during the pandemic lockdown, limited to what he could find online. It wasn’t until libraries reopened that Jackson could research further. He was ultimately able to find the stories of lesser-known figures and their impacts on the history of Black theater.

“When you’re sort of editing everything down and figuring out how we are going to put all of this on the stage,” Jackson said, “that’s when you have to look at sort of losing some things. Everything leads to something else, and you’re down a rabbit hole. It all becomes fascinating, but it’s just what’s gonna be interesting to put on the stage.”

Jackson not only wrote History of Theatre, but also acted in it, playing a member of the Negro Repertory Company and various historical figures. Jackson says acting in a play you’re writing can hold some irony — when the other actors went home for the day to memorize their lines, he went home to rewrite their lines. 

A group of actors in History of Theatre stand in dramatic poses around a central figure wearing bright yellow, while the rest are in darker colors
Left to right: Arlando Smith, Be Russell, Reginald André Jackson, Dedra D. Woods, R. Hamilton Wright, Malcolm J. West, Amy Thone, and Tracy Michelle Hughes. (Photo: Robert Wade)

A prominent topic in the play is a surprising history most Americans won’t know — one of minstrelsy and the ways it was empowering for Black actors of their time, giving them an opportunity to act, and in doing so, rewriting the narratives around them. Now entirely framed as a racist taboo in which white actors mocked Black Americans, History of Theatre gives a different perspective on the Black actors who took part in minstrelsy.

“You have to own everything, and so taking a look at the actors at the time, they weren’t thinking, ‘I’m doing something that’s detrimental or harmful,’” Jackson said. “So what was their way in, and what was their perspective? Filtering it through today, we often don’t want to look at certain parts of history. Often, there’s this sense of shame for Black people. So having a modern person’s perspective, Sister Blacknall, as a proxy for today’s audience allowed us to let the other characters sort of actively listen to [a Black minstrel actor’s] truth.”

Jackson has begun to write more screenplays to follow and to continue to reflect on the history and impact of Black theater artists, and hopes to see them put on with ACT as well, or otherwise. As they say, it’s only when we know history that we can avoid repeating its mistakes. 

“I’m part of this community, and I just have a passion for unsung stories,” Jackson said. “But also, this was made purposely for us to look at the history of theater so that we can see how to move forward.”

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image, left to right: Actors R. Hamilton Wright, Malcolm J. West, Arlando Smith, and Dedra D. Woods portray the historical Negro Repertory Company, a Black theater group based out of the University District during the 1930s. (Photo: Robert Wade)

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