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Lewis, Theophilus(1891–1974) - Drama critic, Uses the Messenger as a Voice, Family Life and Writings

theater black wrote african

Theophilus Lewis was a drama critic of the Harlem Renaissance era. Lewis was passionate about theater and thought that it should reflect the values of the black culture. In an article on Lewis, Theodore Kornweibel stated that Lewis wanted to provide “an ideology for the development of a national black theater which would be both a source of a racial ethos and repository of the race’s genius.” He wrote a monthly review in the periodical the Messenger , one of the first periodicals to have a regular column devoted to theater. For many years, he wrote for several black and Catholic periodicals. Lewis wrote short stories, poetry, and book reviews.

Theophilus Lewis, a native of Baltimore, was born March 4, 1891. He attended the public schools in Baltimore and New York City. He served in the American Expeditionary Force overseas during World War I. As a young teen, Lewis developed a love for theater and attended shows whenever he could afford them. Lewis was a self-taught man who received no formal training.

Lewis’s affiliation with the Messenger had an interesting beginning. Upon moving to New York, Lewis met A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen, who later became the publishers of the Messenger . During this period, the 1920s, there were two prominent theaters in Harlem, the Lincoln and Lafayette, which Lewis attended. He shared his review with the publishers and they were very impressed. They asked him if he would write a monthly column for their new publication. The publishers had no money, but they offered to purchase the theater tickets for Lewis. Lewis accepted this arrangement.

Although Lewis was passionate about theater and wrote a column in the Messenger from 1923 until 1927, he was never compensated for his work. He supported his passion with manual labor jobs and later became a postal worker in New York City.

Uses the Messenger as a Voice

Lewis reviewed plays and discussed the importance of black culture in his column. He wrote about black theater productions and voiced his concerns regarding the portrayal of blacks in black theater and how white playwrights portrayed blacks. Many early plays reviewed by Lewis were written by white playwrights and had little or no black representation.

Lewis was very critical of certain trends during this era. While he liked comedy and the musical revues, he viewed them as having a lower standard than drama. He disapproved of racial stereotypes or the portrayal of light-skinned women in many black theater and white productions. He wanted the productions to reflect a serious perspective of the life of blacks and the culture. He blamed the playwrights for not using the considerable talent of the few black actors in a more productive manner.

Lewis thought that with the development of a national African American theater many of the stereotypes would disappear. It was his perception that an African American theater would be different in terms of materials and audience, and plays would be based on the experience and culture of African Americans. He hoped that such work would establish the worth of the African American playwright.

In 1924, Lewis stated that the play, Rosanne , was one of the first plays to present blacks in a human manner. He was impressed with the quality of this play and how it depicted a black character with realism.

Family Life and Writings

Lewis married in 1933 and became the father of three children: Selma Marie, Alfred Charles, and Lowell Francis. While the literature contains no information about his wife, Lewis periodically made reference to his children in his column “Plays and Point of View” in the magazine International Review .

In 1939, Lewis converted to Catholicism and began writing in many Catholic magazines including Catholic World, Commonweal and America . Lewis also wrote for many Negro presses and periodicals, including the renowned Pittsburgh Courier and People’s Voice , for over fifty years. Lewis appreciated drama that presented an honest, realistic portrayal of the culture of African Americans. He was especially fond of Eugene O’Neil’s The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings .

While Lewis was known mostly for his reviews of drama, he also wrote and coauthored short stories. Of notable interest is his work with George S. Schuyler. They coauthored a satirical column entitled “Shafts and Darts.”

In spite of his talent and love of theater Lewis was never ever able to make his living solely as a critic. He continued to work and ultimately retired as a postal worker. He also continued to write reviews for many Catholic publications until a few years before his death in 1974. His legacy will be that of a dedicated self taught critic who made an indelible impression on African American theater.

Lhuillier, Monique - Fashion designer, Career, Sidelights [next] [back] Lewis, Samella Sanders (1924–) - Art History

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