The FTP provided black theatre workers the skills which discriminatory practices had long denied them, both onstage and behind it. Prior to the Federal Theatre, and certainly during the Great Depression, the black actor had been a soul in crisis-- at once within the system and opposed to it. Where the Harlem Renaissance represented a great flowering in black belles-lettres, the African-American theatre community was hard-pressed to recreate its successes, as drama is an institutionalized artform, requiring vastly greater sums of money to realize than books or muscial scores. A great novel exists in the mind of the author, but a celebrated play must be performed, and this is a costly proposition. White backers of the theatre, like philanthropist Carl Van Vechten were willing and able to support black theatre, but such patronage invariably raises questions of cultural agency. Does the black artist who accepts grants from white privilege court hypocrisy?
Ironically, while most Negroes felt the impact of the Depression more harshly than did most whites, some Negroes made gains they might never have made otherwise. Negro playwrights, technicians, and directors found in the FTP a laboratory, a chance to gain experience in the professional theatre. Unfortunately, but perhaps unavoidably, the Federal Theatre could not avoid perpetuating "...the minstrel-melodrama syndrome, because, again, there was a need to create an audience and a need for the nation to be cheered.” (Abramson, 46) Certainly, new forms of cultural expression were being devised by forward-looking black playwrights such as Langston Hughes, but for the moment they were trapped in more traditional forms of representing black experience. Intriguingly, it is Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones that marks the break with these techniques. For more about this courageous play, visit the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.