Seattle’s Negro Repertory Program

Ethelmarie Hubbard Collection of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, Inc.

On Saturday, December 1st, the Douglass-Truth Branch will host a lecture and Q&A session on the Negro Repertory Company in Seattle. The program will be provided by Dr. Barry Witham, emeritus professor of Theatre at the University of Washington.

A federally-funded theater program, the Negro Repertory Company was a project of the Works Progress Administration. The Company offered employment to African-American actors, dancers, musicians and singers during the hard years of the Depression, and entertainment to the citizens of Seattle. Seattle’s Company was one of the largest and most active in the nation, equaling the New York Company and outperforming those of Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. Professional quality and engaging presentations were the hallmarks of the Seattle Company, but they were buffeted by political storms, racism, a federal bureaucracy and changing managers.

Some individuals in this program went on to successful musical and theatrical careers: Syvilla Fort was the first African-American student of Cornish School. She went on to dance with renowned choreographer Katharine Dunham and to have her own studio. Her students included well-known performers like Marlon Brando and James Dean. Howard Biggs was a musician and arranger for the Company, who later worked alongside bandleader and playwright, Noble Sissle. Sarah Oliver, a long-time Seattle actor and member of Black Arts West, was also part of the original Repertory Company. 

Although the Repertory Company ended in 1939 with the demise of the Federal Theatre Program, the actors and productions are models of theatre life that had an influence on subsequent generations of performers.

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