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Who was Willis Richardson?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

Hailed as the father of African-American community theater, playwright Willis Richardson was born in Wilmington on Nov. 5, 1889, the son of Willis Wilder and Agnes Ann Harper Richardson. His family moved to Washington, D.C., soon after the Wilmington race riots of 1898.

In Washington, Richardson graduated from M Street  School (later Dunbar High School), where an English teacher, Mary Burrill encouraged his writing. Forced to turn down a scholarship to Howard University, because of his family’s straitened finances, he went to work in 1911 as s “helper” with the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where he worked until his retirement in 1954.

Active, in literary circles in the District of Columbia, Richardson wrote more than 30 plays, as well as fairy tales and histories. “The Chip Woman’s Fortune,” produced in 1923, is credited as the first non-musical production written by an African American to appear on Broadway.

Willis Richardson

Willis Richardson. Photo courtesy African American Registry at www.aaregistry.org

His drama, “The Broken Banjo: A Folk Tragedy,” was published in The Crisis (the magazine of the NAACP) and received the 1925 Alice Springarn Prize and the Edith Schwab Cup from Yale University. Other dramas by Richardson included “Mortgaged,” produced in 1924 at Howard University, “Compromise: A Folk Play,” published in 1925, and “A Pillar of the Church.”

For Carter G. Woodson, Richardson edited “Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro” (1930). In 1935, with Mary Miller, he co-edited “Negro History in Thirteen Plays.”

In the 1920s and  1930s, Richardson’s plays were staged at college, universities, high schools and churches across the country. In her book “Willis Richardson: Forgotten Pioneer of African-American Drama,” Christine Rauchfuss Gray wrote that he “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.”

Richardson died Nov. 7, 1977, in Washington. Before his death, the Willis Richardson Players were named in his honor in 1974 in Wilmington. The group stages African-American dramas and comedies each year in Thalian Hall.

 

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