Willis Richardson, a pioneer in the black theatre movement, emerged as a playwright at the dawn of the New Negro Renaissance. Richardson was a significant playwright and drama anthologist during the 1920s and 1930s. However, over the past decades his works have been largely forgotten. Within these contemporary times, few people are aware of his true contributions to the development of black drama. But among his contemporaries, he was recognized as a leading playwright. Such is evidenced in an April 1940 letter he received from Montgomery Gregory that called him a pioneer playwright.
Bernard Peterson has accurately described Richardson as a theatrical pioneer who was the first critically significant and productive African American playwright. Richardson forged the way for countless others who came after him, many of whom were able to garner the laurels and accolades that he himself was not accorded during his lifetime, much to his frustration and disappointment. Not only did he have a passion for writing, and particularly drama, he was considered a trailblazer among black dramatists.
In his own words, as early as 1922, Richardson sent a letter to Gregory stating Negro drama has been, next to my wife and children, the very hope of my life. I shall do all within my power to advance it. During these formative years of black drama, Richardson exerted his energies towards promoting and perfecting his craft.
Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, Richardson and his parents, Willis Wilder and Agnes Ann Harper Richardson, moved to Washington, DC shortly after the Wilmington Riots of 1898. The riots resulted in the death of sixteen blacks. It is evident that this event had an impact on Richardson as a child, because he recalls it in details in his unpublished autobiography. Aspects of his early life and the identity of his biological parents are somewhat difficult to determine. For a greater scrutiny on these aspects of his life, see pages 8-11 of Christine Grays Willis Richardson, Forgotten Pioneer of African American Drama.
Richardsons father, who read to him as a young boy, encouraged his interest in books and writing. As a child, neighbors often criticized Richardson for reading too much; however, in his own words he states I would forget the rest of the world and become a part of the adventures of Frank and Dick Merriwell, the Liberty Boys of Seventy-Six, the James Boys, and others too numerous to mention.
Richardson attended M Street School, later named Dunbar High School, which was the first public high school for blacks in the United States. His experiences at M Street had a positive impact on his life. Mary Burrill, his English teacher who was a playwright, encouraged him. She was influential in having Richardsons first play read and evaluated by Alain Locke. Angelina Grimke, also an English teacher at the school, reviewed some of his poems; and it was her play, Rachel, that would give him his impetus to seek a career as a dramatist. In March 1916, Richardson and Otto Bohannan saw Rachel.
As result of this experience, Richardson was motivated to study the techniques of drama through a correspondence course. He had already completed a poetry course through the same correspondence school. Finally, Richardson had contact with Edward Christopher Williams who was principal and his Latin teacher during the time that he matriculated at M Street School.
Williams served as an early mentor and encouraged Richardson to write. In Williams words, Richardsons plays were the best he had seen from the black race; and it was Williams (1923) who was instrumental in having some of Richardsons plays read by Locke and Gregory at Howard University. This was around the same time that Locke and Gregory were setting up the Howard University Players. Williams and Richardson would later collaborate on the play, The Chasm (1926).
After graduating from M Street School in 1910, Richardson turned down a scholarship to Howard University because of his familys financial circumstances. Rather than attend the University, he had to seek employment. He began working at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1911 and retired in 1954. It was at the Bureau that he met his future wife, Mary Ellen Jones, in 1912. They were married two years later on September 14, 1914. Ellen and Willis Richardson had three daughters.
Gray points out that Richardson was at one time considered the hope and promise of black drama, a playwright whose work was in great demand by little theatre groups and dramatic clubs . His plays were performed in black high schools, colleges and universities and by community groups across the country. Patsy Perry further elaborates that Richardson was recognized as the great spirit encouraging the creation of A Negro Theatre movement. He supplied original plays for black producers; and directed the Little Theatre Group in Washington, DC.
His accomplishments and the firsts in his career were many. The Deacons Awakening was his first play published in Crisis (November 1920). On May 15, 1923, The Chip Womans Fortune opened at the Frazee Theatre on Broadway. It shared the bill with Shakespeares The Comedy of Errors and Oscar Wildes Salome. The Chip Womans Fortune was the first serious drama by a black that appeared on Broadway. It is for this first milestone that Richardson is most remembered.
On March 29, 1924, his play, Mortgaged, was produced by the Howard University Players. Except for the plays written by Howard University students in Montgomery Gregorys playwriting class, this was the first play written by a black dramatist that was staged at the University.
There were many successes for Richardson during the height of the Renaissance. In 1925 his play, Mortgaged, was published in Alain Lockes The New Negro. His folk drama, Compromise, was the first play by a black dramatist to be presented by the Gilpin Players in Cleveland. In addition to the previously mentioned accomplishments, he won first prize in the Crisis Drama Awards for The Broken Banjo; and he received an honorable mention for plays in the Opportunity Contest for The Fall of the Conjurer.
The following year (1926) he won first prize in Crisis plays category for Boot-Black Lover. In 1928, he won the Edith Schwab Cup at Yale University for The Broken Banjo. In presenting this play, which was produced by the Dixwell Players, they won over eight white theatre groups.
At the request of Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Richardson compiled his first anthology in 1930. The plays in this anthology, Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro, were written by black authors, were not in dialect, and had subject matter suitable for school age youngsters. James Lesesne Wells executed the illustrations for this anthology. Five years later (1935), Richardson co-edited with May Miller a second anthology, Negro History in Thirteen Plays.
In addition to writing, Richardson was very active in the circle of other writers. He was a regular between 1926-1936 with the Saturday Nighters at Georgia Douglas Johnsons home.
Posthumously, Richardson was awarded the AUDELCO prize, which is a testament to his excellence in black theatre.
Fitzpatrick, Sandra and Goodwin, Maria R., editors. The Guide to Black Washington. New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1999.
Gray, Christine Rauchfuss. Willis Richardson, Forgotten Pioneer of African-American Drama. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Perry, Patsy, Willis Richardson, in Dictionary of Literary Biography. vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1987).
Stratford, Mary, A Love and a Talent, in Washington Afro-American (November 10, 1956).
Richardson, Willis. Characters. Opportunity 3 (1925): 183.
________________. The Hope of a Negro Drama. Crisis 19 (1919): 338-39.
________________. The Negro Audience. Opportunity 3 (1925): 123.
________________. The Negro and the Stage. Opportunity 2(1924): 310.
________________. Propaganda in the Theatre. The Messenger 6 (1924): 353-54.
Richardson, Willis, The Black Horseman, The Kings Dilemma, and The House of Sham, in Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro, edited by Willis Richardson (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, Inc., 1930).
__________________, The Broken Banjo, in The Crisis Reader, edited by Sondra Kathryn Wilson (New York: Random House, 1999).
___________________, The Chip Womans Fortune, in Anthology of the American Negro in the Theatre, compiled and edited by Lindsay Patterson (Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1967).
___________________, Compromise: A Folk Play, in The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925).
___________________, Mortgaged, in The New Negro Renaissance: An Anthology, edited by Arthur P. Davis and Michael W. Peplow (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975).
___________________, A Pillar of the Church, in Lost Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940, edited by James V. Hatch and Leo Hamalian (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1996).
biographies | harlem
renaissance books | links | timeline
black renaissance home | dclibrary.org home
The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003