A New Social Order

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Courtesy the New York Public Library. 

In the decade before the Great Depression, government policies sought to regulate morality in society as a whole, as well as in arts and entertainment. New arguments erupted over what could be considered “art” in theatre.  

This decade saw the emergence of African Americans as primary entertainers on New York’s Broadway stages performing for a variety of audiences. Shows began to emerge that presented black life in a more realistic, sympathetic manner where previously black roles were performed by white actors in blackface and black performers were only seen in revues and vaudeville. A significant moment in theatre of this period was the opening of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in 1920. The play gave psychological insight to the nature of the main characters, including Brutus Jones played by black actor Charles Gilpin. For his work in this role, the Drama League of New York recognized Gilpin as one of the ten people in 1920 that had done the most for American theater.