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Rachel (play)

Rachel is a play that was written in 1920 by African American teacher, playwright and poet Angelina Weld Grimké (February 27, 1880 – June 10, 1958). Grimké submitted the play to the Drama Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For the first production of the play the program read: "This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.".[1]



  • Mrs Mary Loving, a widow
  • Rachel Loving, her daughter
  • Thomas Loving, her son
  • Jimmy Mason, a small boy
  • John Strong, a friend of the family
  • Mrs. Lane, a caller
  • Ethel Lane, her daughter
  • Mary
  • Nancy
  • Edith
  • Jenny
  • Louise
  • Martha
  • little friends of Rachel

Plot summaryEdit

Originally titled Blessed are the Barren, this three-act play depicts an educated and sensitive young woman who comes into an understanding of the realities of American racism. Eventually she experiences acute melancholia because of her new understanding. In Act One it is clear that her love for children inspires a deep desire to someday carry her own. She proceeds to fill her mother's house with little brown and black children, whom she lovingly tends to. Her mother reveals to her and her brother the fact that her father and another brother were lynched ten year earlier. In the Acts that follow, Rachel learns of the racism the young children she loves have been made to endure in their school and resolves to never have children. In so doing, she must ultimately reject the love of her brother friend and the man who courts her and that she loves John Strong.

Production historyEdit

Rachel was first performed at Myrtill Miner Normal School (a teacher's college) in Washington, DC., by the National Guy Players under the auspices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. From its status as a work in progress years earlier through this production, the white New York critic, playwright, producer and member of the Board of Directors of the NAACP John Garrett Underhill guided Grimké. It ran from March 3, 1916 to March 4, 1916.[1]

Approximately a year later, the play was restaged at the experimental and community theater the Neighborhood Playhouse in the Lower East Side of New York. The New York production maintained most of the actors from the D.C. production. Lillian Wald, head of the Henry Street Settlement, worked with Mary White Ovington, one of the founders of the NAACP, to bring this production of “Rachel” to the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1917. It was the first time a theater in the United States presented a play by a black author with a black cast before an integrated audience. (“Lillian D.Wald, Progressive Activist,” edited by Clare Coss, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York,1989 pp 11-12) It opened on April 25, 1917.[1]

One month later, May 24, 1917, at the urging of Maud Cuney-Hare, the prominent musician, writer, and daughter of the black leader, Norris Wright Cuney, the play was performed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Brattle Hall, the auditorium of the Cambridge Social Union. A local church, Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, sponsored the performance, given by amateur actors.[1]

In 1924, The Colored Branch of the Young Men's Christian Association staged Rachel in New Castle, PA.[2]

Rachel was produced by Spelman College's Department of Drama and Dance in Atlanta, GA, in 1991.

Rachel received its European premiere at the Finborough Theatre, London, in 2014.

Rachel was produced by the Theater Ensemble of Color in Portland, ME, in 2018.


Patricia R. Schroeder argued that like Mary Burrill, Angelina Weld Grimké's anti-lynching drama relied upon naturalistic settings, vernacular language in the hopes "to use realism's mimetic power to question stereotypes and illustrate social injustice." [3] Similarly, Judith L. Stephens has argued that the recourse to realism in anti-lynching plays illustrated the graphic nature of the act and its pervasive influence in everyday life.[4] Will Harris offers an interpretation of Grimké's realism highlighting its move towards a liberative racial and sexual politics: "While dramatizing the plight of their race, as a means of both raising a black racial consciousness and appealing to a possible white audience, early black women playwrights also formulated dramatic strategies which enabled them to stage substantive, independent African American female presences, and thus propose their sexual equality."[5]

While some critics focus on the realism in Grimké's play, other find the extreme sentimentality more akin to the genre of melodrama. Grimké's biographer Gloria T. Hull notes that Rachel comes across as extreme and thus "too sensitive, too good, too sweet––almost saccharine." [6]

David Krasner published a critical reading of the play Rachel by way of Walter Benjamin in his book on the Harlem Renaissance "A Beautiful Pageant." In it he argues that Rachel is neither realistic nor symbolic, and in its sentimentality both mourning and allegory pervade. The play exceeds realism and relies upon allegory because in its ambiguities and contradictions, "allegory has the power to express the amorphous aesthetic of lynching's effect on a sensitive and overwrought character."[7]

Apparent Themes and their PortrayalEdit

Set in a domestic setting, and appealing to the “idealized motherhood” of the time, Grimke’s Rachel attempted to “reach the conscience of white women”.[8] Grimke’s focus on motherhood, deeply influenced by her own lack of a mother figure, is perhaps one of the most powerful elements of Rachel. Setting her play in the black home, Grimke gives her female characters a “virtuous womanhood”, notably absent in previous stage portrayals of black women. Grimke also emphasizes the “honorable manhood” of black men in her work, giving way to more dignified portrayals of black men on stage.[9] Although the presence of “virtuous womanhood” is the most notable element of her work, she certainly does not neglect positive portrayals of black men, and the concept of “honorable manhood” also goes on to become a staple of future lynching dramas. Grimke humanizes African-Americans with her domestic setting and by portraying both men and women in a way that creates a positive image of black family life. One of the most prevalent themes in Rachel is preserving the innocence of young children. Early childhood is unbiased of racial stigma because it is a learning and developmental period. Though children are constantly being affected by their society, they have yet to make distinct choices about themselves and those around them. This gives them a purity that is extremely noticeable, especially in the midst of lynching and racism. Rachel takes on a motherly role for many of the children in her community. They naturally flock to her loving behavior. Rachel admits that for some reason in regard to black babies, she feels “more than other babies, [she] must protect them. They’re in danger, but from what?”.[10] Rachel is not fully aware of the growing racism around her. This mother figure shares some of the same naivety of the young children she feels she must protect. However, though Rachel cannot quite pinpoint why she feels uneasy for the children, she knows something is wrong. Her fears become more realized when she discovers that her friend, Mary, does not want to be seen with her because Rachel is black. This is a clear point at which the innocence of childhood begins to crack. Rachel is around nineteen years old. She is at an age when social pressure influences people.


  1. ^ a b c d Robert J. Fehrenbach, "An Early Twentieth-Century Problem Play of Life in Black America: Angelina Grimké's Rachel (1916)" in Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and Contemporary Literary Renaissance, edited by Joanne M. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990).
  2. ^ Black Drama, Alexander Street Press:
  3. ^ Patricia R. Schroeder, The Feminist possibilities of Dramatic Realism (Madison Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), 112.
  4. ^ Judith L. Stephens, "Anti-lynching Plays by African American Women: Race, Gender and Social Protest in America," African American Review 26.2 (Summer, 1992), 332.
  5. ^ Will Harris, "Early Black Women Playwrights and the Dual Liberation Motif," African American Review 28.2 (Summer, 1994), 205.
  6. ^ Gloria Hull, Color Sex and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 123.
  7. ^ Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant, 111.
  8. ^ Stephens, Judith L. “The Anti-Lynch Play: Toward an Interracial Feminist Dialogue in Theatre.” The Journal of American Drama and Theatre; New York, N.Y. 2.3 (1990): 59–69. Print. 61.
  9. ^ Mitchell, Koritha. Living with Lynching. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print. 61.
  10. ^ Grimke, Angelina. Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.135.