Owen Dodson: An African American Classic
Taquiena Boston and Vera J. Katz

Owen Vincent Dodson (1914 – 1983), an American poet, playwright, and novelist, was a classically educated, intellectual artist whose influence would emerge in some of the most innovative productions of Washington’s Black Arts Movement. Though Dodson never achieved the artistic recognition he desired for his contributions to American literature, the poetry he made on the stage would contribute to the Black theater movement’s efforts to instill an appreciation for the beauty and proud history in African American identity. This article is based on an interview with Owen Dodson for Witness to a Possibility: The Black Theater Movement in Washington, DC (1968 – 1976). The project directors, Vera J. Katz, former professor of drama at Howard University for over three decades, and Taquiena Boston, an alumna of the drama department, interviewed Dodson at his apartment in New York City in July 1981.

Photo credit: Beineke Library, Yale University

In 25 years as a professor of English and drama at the historically Black Howard University in Washington, DC, Dodson’s achievements included co-building the Howard University drama department, and organizing in the 1940s the first tour of undergraduate theater students to perform in Europe. He would also direct the premier of James Baldwin’s Amen Corner, and Baldwin would spend three months at Dodson’s home doing rewrites. Among Owen Dodson’s most well known students were actor Earl Hyman, poet/playwright Amiri Baraka, playwright Richard Wesley, choreographer/director Debbie Allen, and Allen’s actress sister Phylicia Rashad. Sitting amidst a lifetime of books, art, and theater memorabilia, Owen Dodson talked about early family influences, relived 22 years of teaching and directing at Howard University, and complained about the “degradation” and “pettiness” in contemporary theater.

Literary critics and biographers note that Owen Dodson’s poetry (Powerful Long Ladder, The Confession Stone, The Harlem Book of the Dead) and poetic dramas (Divine Comedy, Bayou Legend) reflect the influence of his classical humanistic education as an undergraduate student at Bates College in Lewiston, ME and a recipient of the master of fine arts degree from Yale School of Drama. Directing the interviewers to a folder of letters written by his journalist father, Nathaniel, Owen Dodson reminisced about how his family encouraged his creative and intellectual development. Three times a week, the Dodson family read poetry and on occasion plays at the dinner table. Dodson chuckled as he remembered that some of the plays had very mature themes and language, but this did not prevent the family from reading or discussing the works. In addition, Dodson and his younger brother put on productions in the basement of the building where they lived in Brooklyn, and after dinner his father and mother would invite guests to be audience members. In a birthday communication to one of Dodson’s sisters, Nathaniel Dodson wrote a line that would foreshadow his son Owen’s career as educator and artist, “...may you be useful to your day and your generation.”

Owen Dodson had a varied career as a writer, stage director, and educator. His most productive years occurred between two of the major movements in American literary and artistic history, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. However, his association with those creative periods was more through his friendship circles and students. The timing of his literary accomplishments proved unfortunate for achieving critical recognition in literary and artistic circles, and his long association with the academy was a liability in terms of being identified as a “serious artist.” In addition, Dodson’s inability to be confined to a single literary or artistic category, along with his race, would make it difficult to place his contributions to African American culture particularly, or American culture in general. Yet students closest Professor Dodson or “Mr. D” spoke admiringly of his ability to instill a sense of how poetry in language and all the arts could enrich their artistic expressions. This contribution would be most evident in the work of director, Glenda Dickerson, a member of Washington’s Black Theater vanguard. Dickerson acknowledged Mr. D’s influence in productions that linked the big emotions and archetypal characters of Greek drama with African ritual drama and the Black church. She also credited Dodson’s concept of “whole theater” that brings together all the arts – music and movement, narrative and poetry, lights, costumes, and sets -- to make positive statements.

In terms of his own work in the theater, Owen Dodson expressed frustration at audiences’ taste for “primitive and fundamental” entertainment -- for “food and sex, bananas and lust” as he wrote in a letter to colleague Alain Locke, the African American philosopher whose The New Negro is the definitive critical analysis about the Harlem Renaissance written by one of its participants. For Dodson, the role of theater and the arts was to make positive statements that affirmed human beings and especially the identity of people of African descent. This was a value expressed on the page and the stage. Even in a poem about “shopping bag ladies,” Dodson paid tribute to the women’s resilience and defiance:

We are the shopping bag ladies
The ingrown toenail sisters . . .
Though the fire, through the ice we endure
We are not afraid
You are the rushing fearful ones
Fearful even of happiness
We are the shopping bag ladies
The ingrown toenail sisters.

This emphasis on positive statements and affirming human “magnificence, beauty, and courage” was what made the classical theater of the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, and modern European playwrights important to Dodson. In addition, he was attracted to the poetic language he found in their plays.

“The great dramas of the world were poetry even when they were written in the form of prose. The classics are something, if students read them well, they will find short cuts to their writing, especially playwrights. Our modern playwrights go on and on about (the ideas), but the Greeks get it out. They teach you economy – also the need for the involvement of passion.”

Owen Dodson praised Shakespeare’s plays for their capacity to teach “how to explain emotion – to begin it, to have a middle, and to exhaust it.” Dodson went on to criticize the dramas of newer playwrights for having no bigness of man or emotion. “Child, you’ve got to have a positive statement. The Greeks make positive statements. Shakespeare says a positive statement" Pointing to a painting on the wall, he continued: "See that picture of that woman with her finger pointing down? She is making a positive statement.”

Mr. Dodson underscored his point by quoting from memory lines from plays he had directed: Euripides’s Medea, Sophocles’s Antigone, Shakespeare’s Othello and Antony and Cleopatra, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler.

Poetry permeated Dodson’s stage direction as well as his writing and teaching. An Evening Star review praised him for being able to “get the emotional drive from his people.” Richard Coe, writing about Owen Dodson’s production of Antigone said, “This production can only serve to enhance the reputation of Sophocles.” Dodson was especially proud of his production of Hamlet that featured Earl Hyman in the title role. He remembered one performance in particular when Howard University had to set up a sound system so that the overflow crowd of 500 people could listen to the performance from outside.

The critic Owen Dodson was not shy about expressing his dissatisfaction with the more recent drama, and complained that many of the plays he saw and reviewed had “no bigness of emotion, no heart break.”

“It’s all about loveliness. Even the serious plays – they’re wishy-washy. There’s no positive statement.”

In reviews and essays, Owen Dodson directed harsh judgment at celebrated playwrights of the Black Arts Movement such as Ed Bullens, and was one of the few who did not praise Joseph Walker’s River Niger. Coming from the generation of writers concerned with elevating the image of African Americans in the arts, Dodson objected to plays that showed “only the depths of Black degradation” with no revelation of why it happens or the way out of the degradation. He mourned, “Where is Black pride? Where is Black is beautiful?”

Glenda Dickerson, Dodson’s former student, celebrated Black pride and Black beauty as expressed in the works of Owen Dodson with Owen’s Song (c. 1974). This production enjoyed acclaim with audiences and critics at the DC Black Repertory Theater Company’s New Colony Theater on upper Georgia Avenue and later at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and in New York. Dickerson crafted Owen’s Song, a prodigal son story about corruption and redemption, by bringing together Dodson’s poetry and his poetic drama Bayou Legend into a sweeping stage epic. The production drew on Dodson’s influence in using poetic drama, choreography, music, archetypal characters, and iconic sets and costumes to make “positive statements” about the quest for authentic freedom and African American identity.

Owen Dodson recalled the emotional impact of seeing this tribute to his work with his sister when it was performed in New York, and how in an unusual gesture he had tearfully touched his sister’s hand at hearing lines from poems he had written many decades before:

“I am so black they call me night time. When I walk along everyone looks for stars.”

Literary and dramatic scholars acknowledge that while Owen Dodson did not achieve the critical recognition he desired during his lifetime, there has been renewed interest in examining his work and its contribution to African American literature. This article has attempted to recognize a poet and dramatist who would not confine himself or African Americans to the smallness of categories, and his contribution to a theater movement that revolutionized the consciousness of its audiences. Paying tribute to the power of the arts, Dodson concluded, “We have created all kinds of things, but all the things don’t add up to human happiness. All over the world we are a sad people, but when you see something special, and when you leave the theater you can say what a wonderful world this is.”



Sorrow is the only faithful one:
The lone companion clinging like a season
To its original skin no matter what the variations.

If all the mountains paraded
Eating the valleys as they went
And the sun were a cliffure on the highest peak,

Sorrow would be there between
The sparkling and the giant laughter
Of the enemy when the clouds come down to swim.

But I am less, unmagic, black,
Sorrow clings to me more than to doomsday mountains
Or erosion scars on a palisade.

Sorrow has a song like a leech
Crying because the sand's blood is dry
And the stars reflected in the lake

Are water for all their twinkling
And bloodless for all their charm.
I have blood, and a song.
Sorrow is the only faithful one.

Powerful Long Ladder, Farrar, Straus, 1946
The Confession Stone: Song Cycle, Broadside Press, 1970
The Harlem Book of the Dead, with James Van Der Zee and Camille Billops, Morgan & Morgan, 1978
Nathan L. Grant, ed., The Unpublished Poetry of Owen Dodson, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997

Boy at the Window, Farrar, Straus, 1951
Come Home Early, Child, Popular Library, 1977

Selected Works for Theater:
Divine Comedy, 1938
Garden of Time, 1939
Amistad, 1939
Doomsday Tale, 1941
Gonna Tear Them Pillars Down, 1942
The Ballad of Dorrie Miller, 1943
New World A-Coming, 1944
The Third Fourth of July, with Countee Cullen, 1946
Bayou Legend, 1946
Medea in Africa, with Countee Cullen, 1959
Till Victory is Won, 1965

The Story of the Soul, 1978
Freedom, The Banner, 1984

James V. Hatch, Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson, University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Howard University Department of English: http://www.coas.howard.edu/english/legends-dodson.html
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owen_Dodson


Taquiena Boston is a native of Washington, DC and alumna of Workshops for Careers in the Arts (the origin of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts), Howard University (Bachelor of Arts) and the University of Michigan (Master of Arts) at Ann Arbor where she studied drama and theater arts. Taquiena was a co-project director with Vera Katz on "Witness to A Possibility: The Black Theater Movement in Washington, DC (1968 - 1976)," which received partial funding from the Humanities Council of Washington, DC. She is currently Director of Identity-Based Ministries for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Vera J. Katz retired after teaching acting and directing for 32 years at Howard University where she was a full-time, tenured Professor, directed numerous productions and founded the Directing program. She also worked for eight years as a part-time theatre faculty member of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and has taught for Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, Serenity Players, African Continuum Theatre Coalition, and Essential Theatre. She has directed premieres for the Black Women’s Playwrights’ Group and Playwrights Forum, among others. She has also written articles for various theatre publications and directed over fifty theatrical productions throughout the United States.


Published in Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008.