Author Hughes Allison Tackled Racial Stereotypes, Prejudices

Groups and Communities
Published February 3, 2000

Author Hughes Allison Tackled Racial Stereotypes, Prejudices

| Published February 3, 2000

Hughes Allison The Newark Public Library

Today we begin the first of four articles keyed to Black History Month and the contributions of African-Americans that have great import for our city and its residents.

First, we will take a look at author Hughes Allison, a man of immense talent who grew up here and eventually gained international acclaim. Hughes Allison (1908-74), an adopted Newarker, was born in South Carolina, grandson of a Reconstruction-era judge and son of a concert pianist mother. He grew up in Newark, attending Bergen Street School and Barringer High School. Early on, he had intended becoming a doctor, but then decided that a literary career was more to his liking. To provide the necessary foundation, Allison attended Upsala College in East Orange, where he majored in English and history. His first literary endeavor was with a series of short stories entitled 'Miss Hood Is Shocked,' which appeared in several magazines. Subsequently, he dedicated his lifetime to writing.

From the Ground Floor

In high school and college, Allison worked as an elevator operator at Bamberger's department store. He also sold poetry and short stories. By the 1930s he had become affiliated with the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration. Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theater Project, considered Allison 'one of the best Negro playwrights in America.' In 1940, Allison married Elitea Anderson who remained his faithful partner and friend until his death. A librarian by profession, she lives in East Orange. In tribute to her husband, Elitea Allison is presenting his manuscript collection to the New Jersey Information Center of the Special Collections Department of the Newark Public Library during Black History Month. This rich literary collection will eventually become available for scholars and library users.

In many ways Hughes Allison was the right man at the wrong time in American and local history. Just as he was entering a period of literary flowering, the country seemed on the verge of collapse, burdened by all the problems of the Great Depression. Some of Allison's abilities gained acclaim with the framework the Federal Theater Project of the WPA, which created a Negro theater. While Allison wrote of African-American experiences from that standpoint, his work was also aimed at a white audience and at the destruction of stereotypes promulgated by whites and blacks. In 1937 author Alain Locke wrote, 'The talent of Hughes Allison, more mature in dramatic technique than any Negro playwright to date, warrants hopeful watching and encouragement.' In probably his best known play, 'The Trial of Dr. Beck,' Allison allowed 'for an extensive analysis of black middle-class color situations and of the paradoxes and ironies of race prejudice.' Other plays included 'Midnight Over Newark' and 'Panyared.' He also wrote numerous short stories and mysteries. An important design of Allison was well summed up in C. Quita Craig's book 'Black Drama of the Federal Theatre.' Allison, she said, 'lay upon the black dramatists the function of an educator and the responsibility of insuring audience understanding through the projection of Afro-American genesis.' Black dramatists, she noted, 'rejected, …subverted, and replaced the stereotypes that the white culture had established … (and) Hughes Allison excelled in it.' ‘‘In The Trial of Dr. Beck,' a critic said, Allison did not 'make the mistake of undervaluing or underestimating the capabilities of his white antagonists . . . with the result that the victory of Beck's defense attorney was very impressive.'

Newark: 1929-43

When the stock market crashed in October 1929, it took just six months for 7,500 Newark families (37,500 persons) to find themselves on relief. It didn't take long for city officials to become swamped with requests for help. More than 600 Newark factories had closed, and by 1933 payrolls had dropped from $90 million to a mere $40 million, a disastrous occurrence which physically as well as psychologically staggered the city. Just imagine what that meant to every man, woman and child in the city, and how any sort of equilibrium was to be maintained. A city-run shelter opened on Nov. 27, 1932, and quickly filled up as 400 men were taken in within minutes. At the same time a recently commissioned soup kitchen served 1,400 people its initial meal. At first Newark tried to solve its problems through short-term construction projects such as the conversion of the old Morris Canal into the modern Newark City Subway. This was done by hand, not machinery, to give work to unemployed Newarkers. Other ventures included the extension of Branch Brook Park, improvements at the airport, and the provision of work on local art and history projects. Soon the state started expanding its park system. By 1935, massive help was underway under the executive order of President Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration—renamed in 1939 the Work Project Administration. The massive federal remedy to the Depression was both hailed and condemned by friends and enemies. Whatever the view, it led to the completion nationally of 116,000 buildings, 78,000 bridges, 651,000 miles of road improvements and the upgrading of 800 airports. Not only were the nation's physical needs addressed with new buildings, bridges and airports, its intellectual requirements were attended to at the same time. For the engineers and scientists there were buildings and projects to tackle. For artists and writers, there were books to be written and theaters to be filled. Subdivisions of the WPA that cater to specialized needs included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Writer's Project and Federal Theatre Project. At the height of its operation, more than 8.5 million people were employed nationally through appropriations totaling nearly $11 million. Locally, no group was more in need of help than the Negro (African-American) community. By the time the Depression was fully under way, 10 percent of all Newarkers fit into this category. In 1920, just 16,977 African-Americans lived in Newark, a number that rose to 37,770 by 1930 and subsequently to 45,760 by 1940. Without massive federal and state help, there was no way that many black Newarkers could afford to buy groceries, much less afford the luxury of legitimate theater. This is where the Federal Theatre Project held out hope for black writers, and for Hughes Allison in particular.

The Federal Theatre Project

One of the positive products of the Great Depression, the Federal Theatre Project had its share of successes and failures. Without it, thousands of actors, directors, writers and scene designers would not have survived. According to Glenda E. Gill in 'White Grease Paint on Black Performers, 'The Federal Theatre contributed more than any other thing to the development of black actors.' Gill also concluded that 'the ensemble spirit of the Federal Theatre lingers in the fraternity of its members and production on stage.' Furthermore it helped establish the rudiments of basic stagecraft. Bernard L. Peterson felt the FTP was a major influence in the whole American theater. It was an agency that established Negro (African-American) units in 23 American cities where resident playwrights not only wrote original scripts, but adapted the classics. Best known units in the East were located at Boston, Hartford, Philadelphia, and Newark. In the South, it was Raleigh, Durham and Birmingham. In the Midwest: Chicago, Cleveland and Peoria, and in the West, Los Angeles and Seattle. In all, the Federal Theatre Project provided a nationwide audience with low cost, superior productions that tended to be experimental and at the same time encouraged the development of new groups such as the Mercury Theatre and the 'Living Newspaper,' a dramatization of news stories. Thanks to the FTP the stage was literally and figurative set for a Hughes Allison and Dr. Beck.

Allison, the Author

Hughes Allison's literary talents covered many bases: plays, short stories, mysteries, radio scripts and his early poetry. 'Dr. Beck,' his best-known work, is a courtroom drama that includes three acts. Once critic called it '…a skillfully and beautifully written (play based) on the mischievousness of race prejudice in a modern trial, splendidly spoken,' and a 'direct confrontation of the myths of white superiority and (its) effect upon the black community.' The plot revolves around an African-American doctor on trial for the supposed murder of his wife. In court, the doctor is brilliantly defended by a black attorney who wins the case. The production was staged by Louis Simon, with setting by Rollo Wayne. Produced by the New Jersey Federal Theatre Project of the WPA, the play opened at Newark's Shubert Theatre before moving to the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York. This was the first time that an out-of-state federal theater group appeared on Broadway. According to the Newark News, this trip to the Broadway stage 'is in line with the policy of the Federal Theatre to create a theatre national in scope rather than a series of disconnected local units. The aim of the Federal Theatre has been to encourage new plays and new playwrights as well as to present standard plays of Broadway and classical plays.' E. Quita Craig described Allison as 'astute in handling of the subject where the entire white judicial system seems to be on trial along with Dr. Beck.' She noted, however, that the work did not antagonize the white audience, for it could point with satisfaction at the ultimate triumph of white justice.

''Midnight Over Newark' and 'Panyared' are Allison's other plays. The former was reviewed in the Newark News on May 21, 1941, as it opened at Newark's Mosque Theatre (Newark Symphony Hall). It dramatized the plight of local African-American physicians attempting to practice in the city's hospitals. The News called it a 'new play designed as propaganda in a move to install Negro physicians at City Hospital.' The review continued by saying that Allison described 'the white man's conception of the Negro' and that the play is devoted to allege specific conditions at the institution.' Performances were under the auspices of Alpha Alpha Lambda fraternity which included the backing of several prominent black physicians. The cast was under the direction of Frances Fraunie, and included Georgette Harvey, Norma Helson, Ernest Ransome and Benjamin Jones.

''Panyared, ' produced in 1937, was the first part of a projected trilogy dealing with an African genesis, predating Alex Haley's popular efforts by 35 years. Allison's interest in African roots is the central theme in his story line which began in mother Africa and moved to South Carolina plantation life. Only the first play was produced because of the collapse of the Federal Theatre in 1943. The three acts of the initial play began with the capture of Bombo, son of an African king. It captures the essence of the Middle Passage with the descriptions of the terrible conditions aboard the ships that brought slaves to the American agricultural south. The title, 'Panyared,' meaning kidnapped or seized, basically is concerned with total man's greed. Throughout the play a critic wrote, 'White superiority myths hover like malevolent, corrupting clouds over the African continent…' Artfully, Allison tailored its structure to meet the complex demands of two interacting stories divided between two worlds.

Joe Hill, Detective

Another attack on the stereotype of the colored/Negro was Allison's creation of the efficient Joe Hill, an African-American sleuth who was based on Carlton B. Norris, a member of the Newark Police homicide squad. Not just content with proving equality of the races, Allison through Hill's activities '…tried in his writing to explain something that police and most citizens don't realize—the frustration and troubled mental state of the American Negro which lie behind his crimes.'