During an appearance on a panel last Saturday at the Schomburg Center, I noticed a photo of Owen Dodson on the wall in the place where the American Negro Theater was prominent for Black actors 75 years ago. Dodson’s photo is there because one of his plays, “Garden of Time,” based on the myth of Medea and Jason, was produced there in 1945.
At that time, Dodson, who was born Nov. 28, 1914, in Brooklyn, N.Y., was 30 and in the prime of a long and productive career as a playwright, poet, director and teacher. Dodson’s proclivity to the literary sphere was fairly predictable because his father, Nathaniel, was an acclaimed journalist. Years before he began studying at Bates College in Maine, Dodson had already begun cultivating a love for words. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bates, he attended Yale University, where he was awarded his MFA in 1939.
As a graduate student at Yale, he wrote and produced “Divine Comedy,” which told the story of Father Divine, the spiritual leader who commanded a large following during the Great Depression. Dodson, though a pacifist, joined the Navy during World War II, leaving his teaching post at Spelman College, and continued to develop his urge for creative writing by producing history plays for African-American seamen. His verse chorale, “The Ballad of Dorie Miller,” about a Black naval hero during World War II, was among these productions. In 1943, he was also writing historical poetry, including his poem “Black Mother, Praying,” mainly a plea to end racial segregation.
Black history continued to be an inspirational theme in 1944, when his pageant “New World A-Coming” was performed at Madison Square Garden, which has the same title as Roi Ottley’s book chronicling the era, published a year before. The performance was highly successful and even praised by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
No longer in the service after a two-year stint, Dodson published his first collection of poetry, “Powerful Long Ladder,” in 1946, to good notices. A year later, he began teaching at Howard University, a position he would hold until 1967. Among his more celebrated students were Debbie Allen, Earle Hyman, Roxy Roker, Amiri Baraka and Ossie Davis. Davis recalled in his autobiography that he had attempted to present Dodson’s “Confession Stone” (1970), about the life of Jesus, but was unable “to get it off the ground” and find the necessary funding. In his autobiography, Baraka doesn’t cite Dodson directly but does offer a dismissal of the Howard Players at that time. Indirectly, Baraka does note that after reading Ottley’s book and possibly knowing of Dodson’s play, he changed his name from Leroy to LeRoi.
Much more intimate are the reflections of the actor Gordon Heath (1918-1991) in his memoir “Deep Are the Roots,” who wrote that Dodson “was a parent, adviser, teacher and director. He was acquisitive and I was part of his collection.” This may have been Heath’s allusion to being gay. Others, such as writer Hilton Als, will also cite being Dodson’s lovers.
The success of his pageant at Madison Square Garden caught the attention of an organization that sought his influence on changing the stereotypical portrayal of Blacks in Hollywood. “Child, I went to Hollywood and met them all, the top writers,” he told his biographer James V. Hatch. “But they didn’t pick up our cause because there were so many things going on in the government—Joseph McCarthy—and they were afraid. In my time I was a very eloquent and good-looking young man. I should have had rays to pull them into our cause. But the commercial world had sucked them in, and they would not let their careers go away with a Black cause, even though they believed in the whole damn thing.”
Dodson experienced a kind of silent indifference on the poetic front, failing to command the attention possessed by some of the other leading poets of the day, including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Detroit’s Dudley Randall.
Things improved dramatically later when he was offered an associate professorship at Howard University. Here was a place where his plays found comfort and presentation, especially under the guidance of Anne Cooke’s department. It was during this tenure that he gained respect among a coterie of emerging actors and activists during a period when the Black Arts Movement was in ascendance.
Even before the arrival of the political intensity, Dodson was at the center of discussion when he took a troupe of performers from Howard University on a European tour to showcase the school’s talent. But the tour was the least of his concerns; his homosexuality had become a distraction, hindering his work and his reputation. A mounting number of homophobic articles and insinuations exacerbated the gossip about him, and some say that was the cause of his alcoholism.
In 1967, after taking a sabbatical to deal with his addiction, he was forced to retire from Howard, though he continued to deliver lectures, conduct readings and occasional directing assignments.
He died June 21, 1983, of heart failure in New York City; he was a lonely and dispirited artist, which he shouldn’t have been given his achievements.
Dodson’s legacy was given a fresh turn in the 1990s, when poets, playwrights and, most rewardingly, scholars began to reassess his work. His memory was recalled vividly by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) in his autobiography, which was completed by his friend and associate Dr. Michael Thelwell of Amherst University. Along with classicist Frank Snowden, there was the “irrepressible poet-dramatist Owen Dodson, director for the Ira Aldridge Theatre, who regularly produced Black playwrights and liked to transpose classical Greek playwrights into African contexts,” Ture wrote. Esteemed sociologist E. Franklyn Frazier, writer Toni Morrison, historian William Leo Hansberry, law professor Charles Hamilton Houston and the inimitable folklorist and professor of English Sterling Brown were among the scholarly pantheon at Howard University sharing the limelight with Dodson.
It was not only the Greek plays that were transposed by his genius, Dodson also delved deeply into the African and African-American experience to give those cultures their place in the annals of humanity.