Dodson’s dilemma Essay

Published: 2021-09-11 17:00:08
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Owen Dodson never got his big break. An exceptionally talented writer and director, Dodson hobnobbed with the movers and shakers of the black intelligentsia from W.E.B. du Bois to James Baldwin and inspired younger generations of black poets and artists. Yet Dodson, a professor of drama at Howard University for 25 years, never became a celebrated man of the theatre himself. His story is captured in Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson by City College professor James V. Hatch. The vividly written biography is based on extensive interviews with Dodson, taped a couple of years before his death, as well as conversations with numerous friends and colleagues.
Dodson, born in 1914, grew up in what was then the ethnically mixed neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn. Born to a middle-class family who valued literature and education, Dodson’s gift for the written word flourished during his student days at Bates College in Lewiston, Me., where a stream of literary successes at the undergraduate level landed him an invitation to the Yale School of Drama. There he witnessed successful productions of his highly poetic dramas Divine Comedy, about the Great Depression preacher cure con-artist, Father Divine, and Garden of Time, a reworking of the Medea story transplanted to the postbellum South.
Upon graduating in 1939, Dodson accepted a teaching and directing job at Spelman, Atlanta’s prestigious black women’s college. a decision which launched him on an extraordinary teaching career but effectively ended his higher aspirations as a “real artist.” In Atlanta, Dodson was introduced to the eccentrics and iconoclasts of the black literati.
During Dodson’s 1940-42 stint in the Navy, he managed to convince superiors to develop a department of drama, for which he wrote and directed a series of morale-building plays and pageants honoring naval heroes and great Negro leaders. His epic pageant New World A-Coming, featured as part of the Negro Freedom Rally in June of 1944, was staged at Madison Square Garden. The event, organized by the indefatigable Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell and his Negro Labor Victory Committee, was a huge triumph for Dodson. A multiracial audience of 25,000 crammed into the arena to view the spectacle, which was praised by New York mayor Fiorella H. LaGuardia.
Dodson began his Howard career in 1947, joining Anne Cooke’s newly created drama department, which stressed professionalism–not commercialism and “total theatre.” Dodson directed Arthur Miller’s All My Sons in 1948 and for the first time white critics came to Howard to review. He worked with the gifted but fickle James Baldwin on his 1954 play The Amen Corner (Baldwin promised Dodson he could direct Blues for Mr. Charlie on Broadway, but later changed his mind and hired a white director) and helped to prepare exceptional actors such as Earl Hyman for the professional stage.
But perhaps his most widely publicized triumph at Howard was a first-of-its-kind cultural collaboration between Scandinavia and the U.S. in 1949. Twenty-four members of the Howard drama department spent 10 weeks in the land of Swedes and fjords, presenting all-black productions of The Wild Duck, directed by Anne Cooke, and Mamba’s Daughters, an American play directed by Dodson. Hatch notes that the tour inspired the U.S. State Department to request legislation that would enable the United States Information Service to bring American dance, film, art, music and theatre to the world.
Dodson’s later years were not easy. He suffered hip and knee problems and was forced to undergo several operations. A drinking problem which began in the 1950s exacerbated by unresolved anxieties about his homosexuality steadily worsened as the years progressed. After a forced early retirement from Howard in 1967, Dodson continued to write, lecture, direct occasionally and socialize with the bohemian elite until his death in 1983.
His close friend Gordon Heath wrote about Dodson to a mutual friend in 1963: “He has lusted after Broadway and the professional world of writing and the theatre incessantly, but he has been inexact, unspecific and wooly-minded intellectually, he has coasted on his adolescent images of life and art and his ‘promise’ as one of the ‘new Negroes.’ He has not decided what his job is and limited himself to it.” Devoting so much of his time to fulfilling the dreams of his students, Dodson ultimately neglected to fulfill dreams of his own.

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