#TBT - Black people have been thriving in the arts in Seattle for over 100 years.
Artist expression has been an part of our community for over a century.
The #TBT series is a collaboration between the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and Africatown Seattle to give historical insights and perspectives into Black history and Black contributions in the Seattle area and Washington State as a whole.
Seattle’s Black community has always found a niche for creative expression, artistic presence and appreciation for the stage. At the turn of the 19th Century with just a small population of Black people in Seattle, drama clubs were popular with standout performances by the DuBois Dramatic Club that was made up of First A.M.E. church members. They performed at Union Hall, 1453 22nd Avenue and at Polish Hall on 18th Avenue.
It was with the New Deal when during the mid-1930’s that Black voices and performance were lifted through the Federal Theatre Project. The project was a program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and employed actors and other theater professionals who often explored progressive ideas and new types of theater. In Seattle the Negro Repertory Theatre was at the center of Black theatre.
It was a struggle to get the Negro Repertory Theatre off the ground. Auditions were held at the YMCA that was at 21st and Madison street and if those fortunate enough to be offered a job, the pay was a great salary of eighty-five dollars a month…”good money”. The first play was presented at the Playhouse on University Way. The theatre group had good success and performed a number of plays that received national attention. Eventually, the theatre group found a home at a small theatre that was an old movie house on Atlantic Street, and it stayed there until the program ended.
Though the Negro Repertory Theatre was not managed at high levels by Black people and most of the time the reviews were not by Black people, there was a sense of achievement and pride within the theatre group and the Black community. There was an incident that involved an attempt to use caricatures of Black people by a publicity man for the front of the theatre. Quickly and loudly, the theatre group protested, and it didn’t happen.
To learn more, read here about the history of the Negro Repertory Theatre that would influence what would come years later at Black Arts West (*remembering founder, Douglas Q. Barnett, 1931-2019) and continues today in the Central Area community at Langston.
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