Hailed as the father of African-American community theater, playwright Willis Richardson was born in Wilmington on November 5, 1889, the son of Willis Wilder and Agnes Ann Harper Richardson. His family moved to Washington, DC, shortly after the Wilmington coup and the 1898 massacre.
In Washington, Richardson graduated from M Street School (later Dunbar High School), where an English teacher, Mary Burrill, encouraged her writing. Forced to refuse a grant to Howard University, due to his family’s finances, he went to work in 1911 as an “assistant” with the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where he worked until his retirement in 1954.
Active in literary circles in the District of Columbia, Richardson has written over 30 plays, as well as fairy tales and stories. “The Chip Woman’s Fortune”, produced in 1923, is considered the first non-musical production written by an African-American to appear on Broadway.
His drama, “The Broken Banjo: A Folk Tragedy,” was published in The Crisis (the magazine of the NAACP) and received the 1925 Alice Springarn Award and the Edith Schwab Cup from Yale University. Other Richardson dramas include ‘Mortgaged’, produced in 1924 at Howard University, ‘Compromise: A Folk Play’, released in 1925, and ‘A Pillar of the Church’.
For Carter G. Woodson, Richardson edited “Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro” (1930). In 1935, with Mary Miller, he co-edited “Negro History in Thirteen Plays”.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Richardson’s plays were performed in colleges, universities, high schools, and churches across the country. In her book “Willis Richardson: Forgotten Pioneer of African-American Drama” Christine Rauchfuss Gray wrote that he “was at one time considered the hope and promise of black drama, a playwright whose work was in high demand by small theater groups and playwrights. clubs. “
Richardson died on November 7, 1977 in Washington. Before his death, the Willis Richardson Players were named in his honor in 1974 in Wilmington. The group stages African-American dramas and comedies at Thalian Hall every year, but have not produced a show since before the pandemic.