Theatre Thursdays: Star of Ethiopia Pageant

Yesterday was a big day, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in a commemorative celebration. But I’m supposed to be using this time to talk about theatre, I think.

So the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is also the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential decree that freed slaves in states in rebellion against the United States. Those two moments, a century apart, are landmarks of unmatched significance in the history of the American Negro. It is no accident that the March and Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was one hundred years after the Proclamation.

Between these two momentous dates, W.E.B DuBois organized one of the largest theatre celebrations America has ever seen. Called the Star of Ethiopia, Dubois’ pageant brought together thousands of artists on the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to create a spectacle that would be seen by over 30,000 viewers in its first performance in 1913. The pageant attempts to sketch a mythologized history of the black race in five parts, as follows: 1) The Gift of Iron, 2) The Dream of Egypt, 3) The Glory of Ethiopia, 4) The Valley of Humiliation, and 5) The Vision Everlasting. To quote DuBois, the Star of Ethiopia:

begins with the prehistoric black men who gave to the world the gift of welding iron. Ethiopia, Mother of Men, then leads the mystic procession of historic events past the glory of ancient Egypt, the splendid kingdoms of the Sudan and Zymbabwe [sic] down to the tragedy of the American slave trade. Up from slavery slowly. . . the black race writhes back to life and hope. . . on which the Star of Ethiopia gleams forever.

The four shows, in 1913, 1915, 1916, and 1925, were placed on the 50th anniversary of the Proclamation to engage with the timeline of African history described in the pageant. It mixed African traditional history and the role of griot with a fin-de-siecle sense of stagecraft and modernist design elements, fully embracing the combination of traditions that begat the African-American experience.

Now, when the Star of Ethiopia is called a pageant, that indicates that it is a pageant in the medieval style, using arts plastic and performative to draw the audience into an instructive narrative-cum-ritual. The Star of Ethiopia is analogous to Corpus Christi pageantry in that it conveys a history of the world, acting as a sort of narrative gesamtkunstwerk for the mythic history of African peoples. The elements are drawn from architecture, costume, painting, theatre, poetry, and opera. The message is one of progress and eventual vindication, the hero’s journey of a long-suffering people.

Of course, there were elements of pageantry at the March on Washington’s 50th Anniversary celebration. There was a procession throughout the nation’s capital, serving as a re-enactment of the 1963 march and ending at the Lincoln Memorial. This monument would then serve as backdrop for a narrative delivered in oratory, with speeches by surviving members of the King family, labor, religious and political leaders, and Presidents Carter and Clinton. Much as the Star of Ethiopia was punctuated with selections from Verdi’s Aida, the commemoration featured musical performances of the Star Spangled Banner and “We Shall Overcome”, positioning the national anthem alongside the anthem of the civil rights movement. The final act of oratory, a speech by our nation’s Orator-in-Chief, was heralded by the ringing of a certain church bell, a calling-out not only to the past fifty years of struggle, but to the one hundred years which preceded that.