Staging Faith

Religion and African American Theater from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II

233 pages

8 halftones

October, 2013

ISBN: 9780814708088



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Craig R. Prentiss is Professor of Religious Studies at Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri.

All books by Craig R. Prentiss

In the years between the Harlem Renaissance and World War II, African American playwrights gave birth to a vital black theater movement in the U.S. It was a movement overwhelmingly concerned with the role of religion in black identity. In a time of profound social transformation fueled by a massive migration from the rural south to the urban‑industrial centers of the north, scripts penned by dozens of black playwrights reflected cultural tensions, often rooted in class, that revealed competing conceptions of religion's role in the formation of racial identity.
Black playwrights pointed in quite different ways toward approaches to church, scripture, belief, and ritual that they deemed beneficial to the advancement of the race. Their plays were important not only in mirroring theological reflection of the time, but in helping to shape African American thought about religion in black communities. The religious themes of these plays were in effect arguments about the place of religion in African American lives.
In Staging Faith, Craig R. Prentiss illuminates the creative strategies playwrights used to grapple with religion. With a lively and engaging style, the volume brings long forgotten plays to life as it chronicles the cultural and religious fissures that marked early twentieth century African American society.
Craig R. Prentiss is Professor of Religious Studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the editor of Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction (New York University Press, 2003).


  • "Establishes both the significance of theater to African American religion and the importance of religious themes to a range of early 20th century playwrights. Through lively descriptions of the plays themselves, compelling analysis of central themes, and careful attention to historical context, Prentiss provides an exciting new perspective on African Americans’ varied religious experiences and expressions as well as understandings of the place of religion in social and political life. This volume is a must read for anyone interested in understanding how African Americans worked through the arts to define, discuss, and debate the importance of religious ideas, institutions, and practices."

    —Judith Weisenfeld, author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949

  • "Craig Prentiss’s compelling study, Staging Faith, illuminates the intersections of African American dramaturgy and theology. This original book methodically and brilliantly probes the nuances of Christian and Afro-centric religious influences. It is one of the most original and engaging studies on African American theater, enriching the field and advancing the subject in new and invigorating ways."

    —David Krasner, author of A Beautiful Pageant

  • "Prentiss contributes a vital work on a rich area of African American artistic culture . . . brings a careful eye and robust discussion to works that were not only labors of artistic love, but also platforms for social change. He sets groundwork for the continued investigation of African American theater as a vehicle through which possibilities for black spiritual, political, and social life expanded in great measure."

    —Kyle Brooks, Practical Matters

  • “Craig Prentiss surveys a range of theatrical responses to organized religion and personal faith by African American playwrights in the first half of the twentieth century.  As he notes, correctly, analysis of and theorizing about representations of religion, especially Christianity are underrepresented in studies of African-American drama.  Staging Faith is an excellent pioneer in terms of addressing that lack.”

    Studies of Theatre and Performance

  • "Helps us see secularization in a new light."

    American Quarterly