Like all theatres, The National has had to keep up with a changing social landscape. Unfortunately, change has not always come easily, and The National has been a source of controversy in the past for failing to keep up with the times. This was the case in the late 1940s, when The National, among other Washington, D.C. theatres, came under fire for maintaining discriminatory policies that allowed it to bar Black patrons from entering their premises. The leadership’s refusal to change that policy very nearly ended the life of The National Theatre as we know it.
Before continuing, it is important to bear in mind that discrimination and other racist practices are very much part of American theatre history, as they are American history in general. When The National opened in 1835, Washington, D.C. was governed in part by “black codes” a series of laws severely limiting the freedoms of Black citizens, free and enslaved alike. Indeed, if any Black person was caught in the streets at a given time without the proper paperwork, they were legally deemed runaway slaves and subject to arrest. By the time The National Theatre opened, the codes had only just been modified to allow Black people in the streets until 10pm at night. Despite this adjustment, Black patronage at The National was further limited to certain seating sections, meaning the house may have been “open” but it was still internally segregated. This remained the case until 1873, when The National was rebuilt following a fire and effectively barred Black patrons from entering at all, putting it in line with other major D.C. theatres.
Similar practices were adopted across the United States, demonstrating that while slavery had been theoretically vanquished with the Civil War, systemic racism under the broad umbrella of Jim Crow segregation had risen up to take its place. In addition to restricting the access of Black patrons, American theatres also severely limited the activity of Black performers onstage. Indeed, many of the “Black” characters featured onstage were not Black at all, but rather White performers in blackface acting out various racist caricatures (“Jim Crow” is the name of one such character from a successful minstrel show). Even when Black performers were allowed to perform in the major commercial theatre, they were often stuck in roles that forced them to adopt, or sometimes subvert, the same racist coding. Furthermore, as was the case across the country, Black citizens were unfairly scrutinized for their behavior. Black performers were even blamed (without justification) for accidentally starting The National’s first fire in 1845.
Despite the power behind Jim Crow segregation, Black resistance was a constant. In the early 20th century, theatres such as The National became significant sites of protest as Black artists and collectives pressured administrators to desegregate. D.W. Griffith’s infamous film Birth of a Nation, a glorified depiction of the Klu Klux Klan that was once considered one of the most significant films of all time, was protested around the country, including during its initial run at The National in 1916, and again when it returned for another run in the 1920s. Such protests sometimes led to minor concessions. In 1933, The Green Pastures, which featured an all-Black cast, opened its run at The National to an entirely segregated audience. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), stepped in and pressured the production to withdraw from The National entirely. Instead, a compromise was reached in which Black patrons were allowed to attend two special performances. Unfortunately, public pressure could also work in the opposite direction, as it did in the case of They Shall Not Die (1934), a play documenting the infamous Scottsboro affair in which nine young Black men were falsely accused of raping two White women on a train. The play was eventually closed by The National’s management after facing an uproar from a predominately White public, though the management claimed that race was not a factor in the decision.
Artists and organizers continued to make marginal gains in the 1930s. While these gains did not lead to immediate change, they did include notable highlights that would prove influential in the long-term. In 1936, The National was forced to relax its policies for the run of the now-classic American opera Porgy and Bess, which featured a predominately Black cast. The push for an integrated audience to watch the show included the American Federation of Teachers Union, the Theatre Guild, and Todd Duncan, a professor of music at Howard University in Washington, D.C. who originated the role of Porgy. Duncan had already advanced the cause of Black opera performers in New York by appearing for the City Opera, an effectively all-White company, in 1934 and would go on to star at the highly prestigious Metropolitan Opera in 1945. Todd’s influence was instrumental in the strike that led to the brief integration of The National audience for this landmark production. While Todd is one of many who were pioneers in traditionally White spaces, widespread institutional change was still slow in coming. Many other major singers and performers, including such stars as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, were forced to perform at impromptu venues or adjust their schedules. In 1939, Anderson was barred from performing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which lead her to offer a famous open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Robeson, meanwhile, also performed outdoors at the Potomac River in 1943, but ensured his national tour of Shakespeare’s Othello skipped Washington and Baltimore later that year because of the cities’ segregated audiences. These small moments indicate the degree to which the nation itself was becoming divided on the subject of segregation, as well as the power Black artists were slowly accumulating to take their work where they wanted to go.
As was often the case, however, it was not until significant collective action was taken that widespread change could be realized. That action came in the late 1940s, when The National’s discriminatory stance faced challenges in the streets and the courtroom, as well as from some of the nation’s leading theatre artists. In the early 1940s, Black patrons started to take advantage of The National’s refund policy by presenting tickets bought by White patrons and then demanding a refund when barred entry. The National eventually canceled refunds entirely, arguing that they were the victim of a scam designed to diminish their profits. This change in policy prompted the Committee for Racial Democracy to step in and threaten legal action if the theatre did not rescind the new policy. The National refused, and from there, the conflict escalated. Protests began in January of 1947 outside a production of Blossom Time (you might recall that President Harry Truman unknowingly crossed that picket line to see that production). Soon after, leading actors and theatre artists, including Washington theatre legend Helen Hayes, signed petitions announcing they would not appear onstage until the policies were changed. The Actors Equity Association (AEA), the powerful union for stage actors, followed suit by announcing in April of 1947 that union members would no longer be allowed to perform in segregated houses; it was backed by the Dramatists Guild, the major representative for theatrical writers and composers. Meanwhile, the Committee for Racial Democracy took The National to court over its no-refund policy and eventually won their case, applying further pressure to The National’s leadership. Eventually, The National was given the opportunity to integrate by June of 1948 or lose its right to host Equity-level performances. Sadly, The National refused to cooperate until Washington, D.C. adopted its own citywide integration policies. In July of 1948, it closed following a well-attended production of Oklahoma! and reopened later that year as a movie house.
The closure of The National as a functioning theatre is a dark chapter in the institution’s legacy that briefly left a dearth in the city’s cultural scene. However, things were beginning to change around Washington, D.C. In 1950, Arena Stage opened as a fully integrated regional theatre and began its journey to become one of the most prestigious regional theatres in the country, demonstrating that some degree of progress was possible. Eventually, the desire for an integrated venue of The National’s historic caliber compelled new ownership to take over once the previous management’s lease was up. The National reopened as a fully integrated Equity theatre in 1952 with a production of Call Me Madam starring the legendary Ethel Merman. While it represented yet another revival of the grand old institution, more significant progress on The National stage, the American stage, and in the nation at large was still to come through the high days of the Civil Rights Movement. There is still plenty for theatres to do, but the historical record shows that organized efforts on the part of activists and labor organizations, as well as moments of brilliance from great artists and leaders, can advance the cause of justice.
While strides have been made since 1952, there is still some work to be done to create theatres across the nation that actively pursue antiracism. As this page demonstrates, change often comes through a mixture of organized activism and moments of brilliance. These selected articles from HowlRound and American Theatre include numerous perspectives on how organized antiracist action can be taken in theatre. A number of major theatres have already taken such actions by adopting a series of reforms. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company right here in Washington, D.C. responded to the challenge of We See You White American Theatre, an anti-racist collective, by drafting this response and creating several new programs, including the Miranda Family Fellows.
Consider the resources above and then take a moment to think about the artists who inspire you to pursue positive change through their work. Perhaps you’re familiar with the work of Anna Deavere Smith, a solo performer whose work documents moments of crisis in American communities, or with Amanda Gorman, the poet whose performance at President Biden’s inauguration was watched the world over. Who inspires you to pursue what is right? What ideas and practices drive them – and you – toward a more just world?
Galella, Donatella. America in the Round: Capital, Race, and Nation at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019.
Kiger, Patrick. “Marian Anderson Actually Did Get to Sing at Constitution Hall.” Boundary Stones: WETA’s Local History Blog. 9 April, 2014, https://boundarystones.weta.org/2014/04/09/marian-anderson-actually-did-get-sing-constitution-hall.
Kozinn, Allan. “Todd Duncan 95; Sang Porgy and Helped Desegregate Opera.” The New York Times. 2 March, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/02/theater/todd-duncan-95-sang-porgy-and-helped-desegregate-opera.html.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
Matthews, Lafayette. “How Helen Hayes Helped Desegregate the National Theatre.” Boundary Stones: WETA’s Local History Blog. WETA, 22 June, 2016, https://boundarystones.weta.org/2016/06/22/how-helen-hayes-helped-desegregate-national-theatre.
Pulliam, Ted. “The Dark Days of the Black Codes; Court records detail perils even free blacks faced in Washington, D.C. in 1835.” Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit Online. The Historical Society of the D.C. Circuit, https://dcchs.org/the-dark-days-of-the-black-codes/, accessed 16 March, 2021.
Rhodes, Jess. “Todd Duncan: We Love You, Porgy.” Smithsonian Magazine Online. Smithsonian Institute, 6 February, 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/todd-duncan-we-love-you-porgy-38013568/.