Eulalie Spence

Eulalie Spence (June 11, 1894 - March 7, 1981) was a black, female writer, teacher, actress and playwright from the British West Indies during the Harlem Renaissance.

Spence was born on the island of Nevis, British West Indies in 1894. She came to the United States in 1902. Spence taught English and elocution at Eastern District High School (replaced by The High School for Enterprise, Business and Technology) [ [http://www.insideschools.org/fs/school_profile.php?id=1051 The High School for Enterprise, Business and Technology] ] in Brooklyn from 1927-1958, where one of her students was producer Joseph Papp of Public Theater fame. [Parascandola, Louis J. "Look for Me All Around You": Anglophone Caribbean Immigrants in the Harlem Renaissance. African American life series. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press, 2005] In 1937 Spence, who never married, received a B.S. from New York University, and she received an M.A. in speech from Columbia University in 1939.

Spence reached her writing zenith during the Harlem Renaissance alongside other better-known writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright and W.E.B. DuBois. However, her contemporaries somehow overshadowed Spence. Perhaps it was because she was a woman or because playwrights did not get the same exposure as essayists, poets and short story writers. Seemingly, it is true that the achievements of the Black playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance period are not remembered in the same way as those of the poets and novelists. [Scott, Freda L. “Black Drama and the Harlem Renaissance.” Theatre Journal 37 (1985): 426-439 (p.426)]

Spence came to playwrighting comparatively late in life compared to her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, penning her first play "The Starter" at age 29 in 1923. 1927 proved to be a prolific year for Spence. She penned five plays that year, "Fool’s Errand", "Her", "Hot Stuff", "The Hunch" and "Undertow".

Some of the most esteemed African American writers of that time resided in Washington D.C. and attended the “S” Street Salon, a weekly writer’s group at the home of Georgia Douglas Johnson, where she shared ideas with writers like May Miller, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset, S. Randolph Edmonds, Willis Richardson, and Jean Toomer. [ [http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/douglas-johnson/life.htm Georgia Douglas Johnson's "S" Street Salon] ] Spence wasn't part of the Washington group, but lived in New York, where she had been educated. She rejected the idea of "a play to be read," arguing that notion was absurd, like "the song to be read, not sung, and the canvas to be described, not painted," and she worked hard on the practical business of getting her work staged. Thus, Spence came to be seen as having an autonomy and a separate, unique voice all her own. This uniqueness was further heightened by the fact that many of Spence’s plays were comedies and some of her contemporaries did not believe that the New Negro was ready for such frivolity in any arena of American life. [http://www.ket.org/americanshorts/poof/bwphistory2.htm]

W.E.B. DuBois, founder and editor of "The Crisis", the monthly journal of the N.A.A.C.P., surmised that Black Drama must be built from scratch, by Blacks for a Black theatre. Through Crisis, he founded Krigwa (Crisis Guild of Writers and Artists). Krigwa sponsored a literary contest which included a playwrighting competition and fostered a little theatre company, the Krigwa Players. (Scott, 1985 p.433) Frequent contest winners in the drama area included Eulalie Spence… [Scott, Freda L. “Black Drama and the Harlem Renaissance.” Theatre Journal 37 (1985): 426-439 (p.434)] In 1927, "Fool’s Errand" competed in the Fifth Annual International Little Theatre Tournament, a first for Blacks since the finalists competed in a Broadway theatre… The Krigwa Players won one of four $200.00 prizes and the play was published by Samuel French. [Scott, Freda L. “Black Drama and the Harlem Renaissance.” Theatre Journal 37 (1985): 426-439 (p.437)]

However, Spence and DuBois didn’t see eye to eye, artistically or politically. DuBois took the $200.00 prize money and used it to reimburse production expenses and paid neither the actors nor Spence. The Krigwa Players disbanded as a result. Politically, DuBois felt that theatre should be used as a vehicle to showcase propaganda plays to advance the cause of the American Negro. Spence, on the other hand, always very aware of the fact that she was not African American but rather from the West Indies, had a different outlook regarding theatre. Spence felt that theatre was the place for people to be entertained and not antagonized by the problems of society.

"The white man is cold and unresponsive to this subject and the Negro, himself, is hurt and humiliated by it. We go to the theatre for entertainment, not to have old fires and hates rekindled." [Hill, Errol, and James Vernon Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge studies in American theatre and drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003]

The plays of Eulalie Spence helped to make a name for the Krigwa Players amongst both Black and white critics. [Walker, Ethel Pitts. “Krigwa, a Theatre by, for, and about Black People.” Theatre Journal 40 (1988): 347-356 (p.349)] Eulalie’s "Her" opened Krigwa Player’s second season. [Walker, Ethel Pitts. “Krigwa, a Theatre by, for, and about Black People.” Theatre Journal 40 (1988): 347-356 (p.352)] Eulalie’s sister, Olga Spence was an actress with the Krigwa Players. [Walker, Ethel Pitts. “Krigwa, a Theatre by, for, and about Black People.” Theatre Journal 40 (1988): 347-356(p.353)]

Critic William E. Clarke wrote in the New York Age, “"Her"…was by far the best of the bill. It was a ghost story and was written with such skill that it rose to the heights of a three-act tragedy that might have been written by a [Eugene O'Neill|Eugene [O’Neill] .] " [Walker, Ethel Pitts. “Krigwa, a Theatre by, for, and about Black People.” Theatre Journal 40 (1988): 347-356 (p.352-3)]

Although Eulalie Spence’s work has been overshadowed by the male counterparts of her day such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Richard Wright, in recent years scholars have been resurrecting Spence’s work along with other lesser known African American female writers. Other African American female playwrights whose works are being rediscovered are May Miller and Pauline E. Hopkins.

Eulalie Spence died in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on March 7, 1981. [Parascandola, Louis J. "Look for Me All Around You": Anglophone Caribbean Immigrants in the Harlem Renaissance. African American life series. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press, 2005]

Plays

* The Starter (1923)
* Fool’s Errand (1927)
* Her (1927)
* Hot Stuff (1927)
* The Hunch (1927)
* Undertow (1927)
* Episode (1928)
* The Whipping (1934)

References


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