"The work of art that perhaps galvanised the Harlem Renaissance's fascination with black nationhood (and black leadership) was Eugene O'Neill's 1920 play, The Emperor Jones. A thinly veiled drama about the failures of Henri Christophe's despotic reign over the island of Haiti, The Emperor Jones was an important vehicle not only for actors like Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson, but also for visual artists as well (Aaron Douglas's blockprint illustrations for the play in 1926 and Dudley Murphy's film treatment of the play in 1933). Although The Emperor Jones presented the idea of black nationhood and leadership in a negative, racially atavistic light (no doubt with Marcus Garvey's 'Africa for Africans' rhetoric and his failed attempts at nation building in mind), its focus on black agency and independence was not lost on Harlem Renaissance audiences.
The history propaganda and mystique that surrounded Haiti - beginning with the US military invasion and occupation of the island in 1915 - took on a life of its own during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to The Emperor Jones, scores of novels, plays, ethnographic studies and journalistic exposés used Haiti and its peoples for a range of purposes. While Haiti's tortured political history and its cultural links to certain African traditions were viewed by many commentators as evidence of its geo-political weakness and savagery, these same attributes wee viewed by others as reasons for recognising the political power among all peoples of African descent and celebrating Africa's gifts (via Haiti) to world culture. With the removal of the US Marines from Haiti in 1934, this fascination with the island and its mythologies manifested itself in interesting ways, from Josephine Baker's staged musical portrayal of a caged Haitian songbird in the 1934 film Zou Zou, to two major off Broadway plays dealing with black political intrigue, Haitian style: John Houseman's and Orson Welles's Black Macbeth (1936) and William DuBois's Haiti (1938).
Haiti, the second of the two Harlem theatrical productions, was especially memorable for Jacob, a 21-year old African-American artists. Sensing that the play had parallels with contemporary life, Lawrence felt vindication for his decision in 1937 to begin a multi-panelled series of paintings on the life and deeds of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the former slave turned military leader of the Haitian Revolution. Based on historical and fictional descriptions, the DuBois play and Lawrence's vivid imagination, the 41 paintings stunned viewers at their 1939 Baltimore unveiling. Works such as number 25 - General Toussaint L'Ouverture defeats the English at Saline - were remarked upon not only for their high key colours and narrative strengths but for their clear and unapologetic allusions to black agency. Looking back on the Toussaint L'Ouverture series and its thematic volleying between Haiti and Harlem, Lawrence noted in 1941 that 'if these people (who are so much worse off than the people today) could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing.
In 1935, a good five years after the Harlem Renaissance has unofficially come to an end, there was a surprising re-birth of Negro theatre right in the centre of Harlem itself, at the Lafayette Theatre. Here John Houseman created the Negro Theatre Unit, one of the branches of the Federal Theatre Project, itself an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration, Roosevelt's instrument for getting America back to work after the ravages of the depression. [Orson] Welles had been enlisted to the classical wing of Houseman's Project. Taking advice from Virgil Thompson, Houseman had divided the work into two: work by, for and with black actors, and classical work performed by black actors but staged and designed by white artists.
The work of the second of these divisions he took as his own province; the work of the first he entrusted to his black colleagues, who formed a very distinguished team: the writers Countee Cullen and Zora Hurston Neale; the dancer Clarence Yates; the designer Perry Hopkins; Eubie Blake, Joe Jordan and Leonard de Paur, musicians. All of them were already distinguished in their respective spheres and, as a result of the Federal Theatre Project, became part of the mainstream of the theatre...Orson Welles and his actors rehearsed Macbeth, which would be the first production of the classical division. The notion of doing the play had come from Welles's wife Virginia, who saw the potential in setting it in Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century at the court of the Emperor Jean Christophe. Houseman was delighted, and Welles and his designer Nat Karson set to work with passion, researching the period and the curious figure of the gigantic Grenadan slave who had become an emperor: leader of the Haitian forces of insurrection, he was first elected President, then after a furious civil war, Napoleonically crowned himself. As Henri I, his vigorous rule was marred by avarice and cruelty; eventually his people revolted, and, cornered, he shot himself. The parallels with Shakespeare's hero are clear enough. For Welles the element in the transportation that really attracted him was that it enabled him to make supernatural scenes a credible centre of the play."
'No event in the art galleries this week', wrote the New York Times art critic, 'could hope to rival in barbaric splendour the transmogrification of Macbeth by members of the Negro Theatre...deplore as one may the impenetrable fog that separated these swart thespians and the bard himself, the stage pictures at any rate constitute a sumptuous pageant of colour, form, pattern and movement, keyed to the pulsebeat of voodoo drums'."
Extracts from 'Re/Birth of a Nation' by Richard J. Powell,
Background image of Les Fetiches by Loïs Mailou Jones 1938