Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Theatre & Dance

First Advisor

Beth Osnes

Second Advisor

Merrill Lessley

Third Advisor

Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin

Fourth Advisor

Joanne Belknap

Fifth Advisor

Gesel Mason


"Black women playwrights in particular have ensured its [Black culture's] survival through creating performance pieces that reflexively evaluate their life experiences" (Sunni-Ali). This dissertation is an analysis of three, queer, black female playwrights - Mary Powell Burrill, Angelina Weld Grimké and Alice Dunbar Nelson - from the early twentieth century who did just that. I am interested in the reflexive analysis of black life in America that their plays offered their audiences. I am interested in how these plays reached black audiences - their manner of disbursement and performance - in magazine publications such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's The Crisis and Margaret Sanger's The Birth Control Review. I landed firmly with the first, professionally produced, non-musical dramatic piece of black theater created by a black female playwright, Rachel, by Angelina Weld Grimké (Brown-Guillory 5; Perkins 8). In 1919, The Birth Control Review, an "advocacy publication published in the US in the early 20th century by the American Birth Control League" ("The Birth Control Review Archives") published Mary P. Burrill's They That Sit in Darkness, the second subject of this dissertation. The third subject, Mine Eyes Have Seen, by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, was published in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's magazine The Crisis, in 1918. An analysis of these three plays revealed early evidence of a queer black feminist theatre aesthetic as an early 20th century foundation of black drama.

Burrill, Grimké and Dunbar-Nelson created a subversive black, queer, feminist theater that created fully fleshed black identities, in particular black female identities, in situations that reflected black existence of the time period. Through their publication in magazines, the work remained mostly within the community and acted as a model for rehearsing black identity in the sacred and safe spaces of the black community.