Don’t You Want to Be Free?

This past weekend, I went to Boston for the American Literature Association Conference. I presented a paper “Don’t You Want to Be Free?: Questions of Emancipation in 1930s African American Theatre” on an American Theatre & Drama Society panel. My paper focused on Langston Hughes’s play Don’t You Want To Be Free? and his Harlem Suitcase Theatre, founded in 1938. I argued:

The history of the Harlem Suitcase Theater, though founded in New York after Langston Hughes and Louise Thompson’s returns from the Spain, should be viewed as a continuation of Hughes’s engagement with Spanish Civil War, and part of an international antifascist movement.

In the paper, I highlighted connections between Hughes’s play and Spanish teatro de urgencia as well as Hughes’s concurrent engagement with Lorca’s theatrical legacy. Evelyn Scaramella’s article on Hughes and Dorothy Peterson in Translation Review, “Literary Liaisons: Translating the Avant-Garde from Spain to Harlem” pointed me toward Peterson’s friendship with Hughes. Dorothy Peterson was involved in the Harlem Suitcase Theatre and was translating in 1938 the Lope de Vega play Fuenteovejuna, which Lorca’s theatre troupe had performed in 1933.

Adrienne Macki Braconi was on my panel, presenting on the Harlem Experimental Theatre’s production of Goat Alley. After my presentation she informed me that Dorothy Peterson had been a previous director of the Harlem Experimental Theatre. A certain search engine search brought me to this video on the Harlem Experimental Theatre and Regina Andrews, who, like Dorothy Peterson, was a librarian at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library and a founder of the Harlem Experimental Theatre:

The video is part of Ethelene Whitmire’s biography project on Regina Andrews. It mentions that Andrews donated her scrapbooks from the Harlem Experimental Theatre to AUDELCO but they were lost when the office was burgled. I hope they turn up someday. Incidentally, one of Andrews’ plays is included in an anthology I picked up at a used bookstore on Newbury Street on Sunday–Harlem’s Glory: Black Women Writers 1900-1950 (Harvard UP, 1997).


  1. Hello:

    Thank you for this interesting piece on early AA theatre. I was wondering if you knew who Leigh was. Leigh had been at the Harlem Suitcase Theatre. Additionally would you know where Thyra Edwards scrapbook on the Spanish Civil War is located and is it available to the public?

    MaryLouise Patterson

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