Brava! at the Beinecke shines spotlight on women in theater

Black and white photos of female theater performers
“Brava! Women Make American Theater,” an exhibition on view at the Beinecke Library, showcases the many ways in which women in the United States have shaped the theater in the United States. (Photos by Dan Renzetti)

A Raisin in the Sun,” the celebrated play by Lorraine Hansberry, was in tryouts at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre on Jan. 11, 1959, when the 29-year-old playwright shared her thoughts with the producing team about the previous night’s performance. In a two-page, typed memo, she offered detailed notes on the show’s four lead actors and suggested tweaks to various scenes.

Her closing lines blend self-doubt and graciousness: “I am not deeply fond of this play but I must say that I think it is getting a worthy production. Love to all of you ….”

Two months later, “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered on Broadway, the first play written by a Black woman to do so. The story of a Black family’s experiences amid the segregation of Chicago’s Southside was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best play, and earned Hansberry the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Today, it is considered an American classic.

Hansberry is one of a cast of dozens of women featured in “Brava! Women Make American Theater,” an exhibition on view at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library through July 22. Drawing on archival materials from the Beinecke’s collections, the show shines a spotlight on women’s contributions to the American stage, sharing the stories of playwrights, producers, directors, actors, costume designers, choreographers, stage managers, and other professionals involved in making theater. It begins in 1787 with “The Contrast” — the first play professionally produced in the United States — and continues through to the present day.

No single story can encapsulate the history and influence of women in American theater,” said Melissa Barton, curator of prose and drama for the Yale Collection of American Literature, who organized the exhibition. “The show presents an array of stories, recognizing that the individuals at the center of them might have had differing perspectives on feminism and what it means to be a woman.

But it’s an incomplete story as there are gaps in the library’s collections, and in the current historical record, with regards to women of color, trans women, and others.”

Melissa Barton
Melissa Barton, curator of prose and drama for the Yale Collection of American Literature, created an exhibition that highlights how stage performance often mirrored, but also frequently challenged and changed, understandings of women’s roles and of women’s rights in larger U.S. society.

One of the women included in the exhibition disapproved of the theater. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who opposed the theater on moral grounds, must have bristled when her landmark novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was adapted for the stage multiple times. Stowe wrote her own dramatic adaptation titled “The Christian Slave,” which is faithful to the novel and meant to be read in a parlor setting, not in a theater. A copy of the adaptation is on view along with a playbill for a version staged at the Boston Museum in 1852, the same year Stowe’s book was published.

She didn’t see a dime from the stage versions,” Barton said, noting that copyright laws at the time did not cover derivative works and that Stowe had made a fortune off the novel’s success.

The Beinecke show documents early efforts to attract audiences into theaters by objectifying women.

The story of the 19th century on the United States stage is a story of legs,” states an exhibit label that introduces the concept of “leg shows,” musical spectacles that featured women parading on stage in thick, woolen tights. “The Black Crook,” the original leg show, opened in 1866 and became the first New York production to gross $1 million. A bound 1866 edition of the play is on view.

By the early 20th century, women were revolutionizing the American stage. The exhibition highlights women’s involvement in the Theatre Guild, the Provincetown Players, and other theatrical groups that prized experimentation and innovation. For example, Theresa Helburn, who co-directed the Theatre Guild shortly after its founding, shepherded many groundbreaking works, including Karel Capek’s 1920 science-fiction play “R.U.R.” (originator of the term “robot”), several of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, and Eugene O’Neill’s later plays, to the American stage.

Shirley Graham
Shirley Graham (later Shirley Graham DuBois, 1896–1977) led the Federal Theater Project’s Negro Unit in Chicago. After leaving the project, Graham enrolled in Yale’s Drama Department, graduating in 1940. Graham is one of dozens of women featured in the exhibition who left their mark on American theater.

Women working in theater faced persecution during the Red Scare for engaging with the political left. A letter on view from a group called the American Society for the Preservation of Sacred, Patriotic, and Operatic Music places director Margaret Webster, a Theatre Guild collaborator who specialized in directing productions of Shakespeare’s plays, at the center of a vast “Red Web” of subversive activity. Others in that “web” included prominent acting coach Stella Adler, actor Lena Horne, and playwright Lillian Hellman, as well as Langston Hughes and Orson Welles.

The show also explores the many roles that women play in producing theater, including jobs conducted behind the scenes. Madeline Mingino was the stage manager for Yale School of Drama alumna Wendy Wasserstein’s first play, “Uncommon Women and Others,” during its 1977 run at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre in New York City. A selection of Mingino’s daily reports from the production are on view.

Swoosie very loose tonight,” reads a report from a Dec. 1 performance, referencing Swoosie Kurtz, a featured actor in the production.

Naturally, playwrights are included in the show’s examination of the behind-the-scenes toil of staging a theatrical production. Quiara Alegria Hudes ’99 B.A. wrote the book for the musical “In the Heights” as well as the screenplay for the 2021 film version. A script of Hudes’ musical “Breakway, Steal,” written and produced while she was an undergraduate, is on display.

A large, curved case on the library’s mezzanine features the work of Irene Sharaff, who designed costumes for more than 60 stage productions and 29 movies. Her brightly colorful sketches for film versions of “The King and I” and “West Side Story” are on display along with the five Oscar statuettes she won during her career. (She was nominated 16 times.)

A case on the mezzanine’s opposite side focuses on issues of gender and performance, drawing on materials from the library’s Laura Bailey Collection of Gender and Transgender Materials. Those featured include Julian Eltinge, a vaudeville performer who specialized in what was called “female impersonation.” Eltinge would perform dressed as a woman and often conclude his shows with a dramatic reveal of his “true” gender, according to the exhibit text.

Exhibition books on display
The exhibition principally draws on materials in the Yale Collection of American Literature and the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letter.

A series of jewel box cases house materials from the archives of women who left a mark on theater in the United States, such as Hansberry, Gertrude Stein, and Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote the play “Chicago” while a student in Yale’s Department of Drama.

Watkins was inspired to write the play by the sensational murder trials of women who allegedly killed their lovers, a story she covered while a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. For the rest of her life, she resisted suggestions to adapt the play into a musical, believing it would make heroes of her murderess main characters, Barton said.

The exhibition celebrates the work and influence of playwright Paula Vogel, whose 1996 play, “How I Learned to Drive,” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Vogel, who has taught playwrighting at Brown University and the Yale School of Drama, views teaching as central to her career, Barton explained. Her former students include noted playwrights Sarah Ruhl, Nilo Cruz, Lynn Nottage, and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Vogel’s presence in the exhibition demonstrates the importance of mentorship from one generation of women theater makers to the next, Barton said.

The case featuring Hansberry includes her January 1959 memo on the tryout performance of her masterpiece. (She dated the letter “1958,” perhaps because she wrote it so close to the New Year.) The memo is displayed along with two letters from Hansberry to Langston Hughes. In one, a brief, typed message dated February 1958, she requests permission to use the phrase “a raisin in the sun” — from Hughes’ poem “Harlem” — as the title of her play. In the second, which is handwritten in June 1959, Hansberry expresses gratitude to the celebrated poet for sending her press about the play and for a “sweet note” she’d gotten from him. She suggests that they have dinner soon.

There are also so many things I would like to ask about,” she wrote. “The ‘younger’ generation of negro writers must learn to honor the mentors among our writers. And argue, too!”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,