Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Federal Theatre Project in Alabama

The Federal Theatre Project was a New Deal program designed to promote new and classical theatrical productions and provide work for playwrights, actors, musicians, directors and others during the Great Depression. Plays and musicals were produced in many cities across the country, including Birmingham. The program began on August 27, 1935, and was cancelled June 30, 1939. 

Here's Wikipedia's summation of the project, which was driven by the vision of director Hallie Flanagan:

"Within a year the Federal Theatre Project employed 15,000 men and women,[7]:174 paying them $23.86 a week.[8] During its nearly four years of existence it played to 30 million people in more than 200 theaters nationwide[7]:174 — renting many that had been shuttered — as well as parks, schools, churches, clubs, factories, hospitals and closed-off streets.[3]:40 Its productions totalled approximately 1,200, not including its radio programs.[4]:432 Because the Federal Theatre was created to employ and train people, not to generate revenue, no provision was made for the receipt of money when the project began. At its conclusion, 65 percent of its productions were still presented free of charge.[4]:434 The total cost of the Federal Theatre Project was $46 million.[3]:40"

Very little has been written about the project in Alabama, which closed in January 1937 when its personnel were transferred to Georgia. The Alabama Mosaic site has about 34 articles mostly from contemporary newspapers via the Birmingham Public Library. Some of those are below with comments. 

I recently read an article by John R. Poole, "Making a Tree from Thirst: Acquiescence and Defiance in the Federal Theatre Project in Birmingham, Alabama" published in Theatre History Studies 21: 27-42, 2001. In it Poole discusses the only black project in the Deep South, which happened to operate in Birmingham. Several plays originated in this unit, and I'll also discuss some below the relevant newspaper articles. Poole wrote his dissertation, cited at the end with some other materials, on the project in Georgia and Alabama.  

Before its demise the Federal Theatre Project became the subject of Congressional criticism and investigation. Many of the productions addressed, sometimes  graphically, racial and labor injustices and other problematic topics. A few of the Birmingham plays fit that profile as noted below.

What also happened is that for some intense months in 1936 a lot of theater was produced in Birmingham involving both white and black actors and audiences and in some cases tough subjects. 

Jefferson Theater on 2nd Avenue North around 1903. Most of Birmingham's "white" plays were produced here.

Source: BhamWiki

Industrial High School [now Parker]. Most plays of the "Negro" unit were produced here. 

Source: BhamWiki

Birmingham Post 31 March 1936

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic 

"Home in Glory" a "symphonic drama" was written by Clyde Limbaugh, the white director of the Negro Repertory Theater, the first federal project in Birmingham. The previous year Limbaugh had participated in "Roll Sweet Chariot" a project presented at Legion Field. Rehearsals for "Home" took place at the Y.W.C.A. for blacks since the play about black life in Shelby County featured 26 black actors and a chorus of 100. As noted below, the production took place at Municipal Auditorium on two nights in mid-April. There was apparently a third performance; according to Limbaugh, in total 2500 people attended. 

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections

Birmingham Post 2 April 1936

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic

During this period Limbaugh was also busy with projects outside the Federal Theater, including this "minstrel" show with an all black cast staged at the Industrial High School. 

Birmingham Post 24 April 1936

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic 

This article gives us some details on the Federal Theater Project for white professionals and audiences in Birmingham. The plan was to pay $75 a month "be it for villainy, heroism, or plain butlering." The first production to open about May 12 will be "After Dark" by Dion Bousicault, "an old-fashioned melodrama with plenty of asides." Director Verner Haldene was previously with the Montgomery Little Theater, and had taken over April 23 from Ivan Paul of the Federal Theater's Washington office. The play's 25 actors included veterans of the Birmingham Little Theater. Performances were planned for Tuesday through Saturday nights with a Saturday matinee; prices ranged from 20 to 40 cents. The company was large enough to support one always in Birmingham and another touring the state. 

Birmingham Age-Herald 12 May 1936 

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic

Birmingham Post 13 May 1936

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic

Birmingham News 24 June 1936

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic

This article sums up the season as presenting a "series of successful play", ending with a second week of "Chalk Dust" that "deals with educational problems in these trying times." Optimism ran high; the piece notes rehearsals will take place over the summer for the fall season. 

Birmingham News 9 July 1936

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic 

Noted here is "Swamp Mud", the second production of the Birmingham "Colored Unit." The venue was Industrial High School, with Clyde Limbaugh the director and Wallace Pritchett the musical arranger. The play, set among prisoners in the south Georgia swamps, included works songs and spirituals sung by a choir of 200 voices. Seating was available for both blacks and whites. 

Birmingham Post 9 July 1936

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic

We learn here that "Swamp Mud" had been first presented by a group in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The symphonic drama featured an "invisible choir. 

Author Harold Courlander had a long career as novelist and anthropologist, publishing 35 books and plays and many scholarly articles. He died in 1996. 

Arthur K. Akers [1886-1980] was a Birmingham writer who published several dozen stories in various magazines between 1910 and 1936. Some featured stereotypical African-American characters and dialect. You can see a list of them here and here.

Birmingham Post 5 November 1936 

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic

The Birmingham Federal Theater Project will suspend performances until after Christmas, and hopefully take its successful production of "It Can't Happen Here" on a state tour. That play, based on the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel, had premiered on October 27 in 21 theaters in 17 states. The company also plans to begin work on "Altars of Steel" a play by Thomas Hall-Rogers about the development of the steel industry in Birmingham. That play was produced in Atlanta the following year to great controversy; see references below. 


Birmingham News 16 May 1971

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections via Alabama Mosaic

This article provides some more interesting details. The Jefferson Theater remained "dark and deserted" after the theater project left in 1936 and was finally torn down in 1947. There's also an anecdote from Federal Theater Project national director Hallie Flanagan's testimony before the U.S. House committee about subversive influence in the productions around the country. U.S. Representative Joe Starnes of Alabama wanted to know if the 16th century English playwright Christopher Marlowe was a communist. 


Flanagan, Hallie (1940). Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.

Ralph T. Jones, ‘Altars of Steel Highly Praised as Best Drama Ever Presented Here,” Atlanta Constitution, April 2, 1937, 11

John McGee, Federal Theatre of the South: A Supplement to the Federal Theatre National Bulletin, Quarterly Bulletin 1, no. 2 (October 1936),

John Russell Poole, The Federal Theatre Project in Georgia and Alabama: An Historical Analysis of Government Theatre in the Deep South (PhD Diss., University of Georgia, Athens, 1995)

Mildred Seydell, “Altars of Steel Aids Communism with Tax Money,” Atlanta Georgian, April 4, 1937, 4D

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