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Theophilus Lewis


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(1891–1974), drama critic for the Messenger during the Harlem Renaissance.

Theophilus Lewis was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1891, attended public schools, and moved to New York City. He became a manual laborer and later a postal worker, a position that he retained until his retirement. It provided his livelihood during the Harlem Renaissance when he wrote the theater reviews in the Messenger, since he received no remuneration for his writing.

Lewis's theater columns, which appeared from 1923 to 1927, chronicled primarily African American stage productions presented in different venues from Harlem to Broadway at a critical stage in African American history. They also championed development of an African American little theater movement. In referring to such groups as the Ethiopian Art Theater, the Tri-Arts Club, the Krigwa Players (founded by W. E. B. Du Bois), and the Aldridge Players, Lewis reveals his understanding of their importance to the evolution of African American theater and drama. In a 1926 column, for example, he declined to evaluate three plays presented by the Aldridge Players by strict critical standards, arguing that little theater groups afforded necessary opportunities for African American actors to perfect their craft. Lewis's indulgence did not mean that he was overly tolerant; rather that he was not interested in the craft of acting simply for its own sake. He claimed for the actor a central role in raising the standards of the usual fare available on the African American stage.

Lewis advocated the development of a national African American theater that would be clearly distinct from the American theater in materials and audience. This concern, also expressed in later columns written for Catholic World, aligned Theophilus Lewis with other intellectuals of the 1920s who called for the creation of a viable African American literary and artistic tradition based on the folk experience, and it anticipated some of the writers of the 1960s who called for the creation of art based on a Black Aesthetic.

Lewis felt that a national theater that would address itself exclusively to an African American audience would assist in the development of the African American playwright, who, according to Lewis, was at the apprentice stage and needed the closeness to familiar material and a sympathetic audience in order to write legitimate drama. Lewis considered drama to be a higher form of expression than comedy, a form that pervaded the African American theater at that time. Lewis also argued against the prevalence of stereotypes, whether present in the works of African American or white playwrights. While he enjoyed the antics of the chorus lines that appeared in the musical revues of the period, he criticized the intraracial bias evident by the light-hued ladies who comprised most of these productions. Lewis's insight and his ability to address important issues are seen particularly in his recurring discussions of the connection between the evolution of the African American theater and the economic level of its desired target audience.

Lewis's most significant contribution was his theater reviews and commentary, but he did write in other forms. He coauthored a satirical column, “Shafts and Darts,” with George S. Schuyler, reviewed books, wrote commentary on general topics, and authored a few short stories. One of these stories, “Seven Years for Rachel,” which was seralized in 1923, exhibits Lewis's attempts to put some of his own pronouncements into practice. The story, subtitled “a dramatic story of Negro life,” focuses on a love triangle involving Sam Jones, Rachel, and Amelia. It includes elements of African American folk culture that evoke setting and character in a story in which the primary themes are guilt and remorse.


Subjects: Literature

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