In 1948-49 the late Mary Bohanon was named as the first official chair of the North Carolina Central University Department of Dramatic Art. Although dramatic art courses had been taught at NCCU since the year 1935-36, when Marjorie E. Bright was appointed as an English and dramatic art instructor, no instructor had been given the title of chair. According to Bohanon's biographical sketches in her publications, she established the Department of Dramatic Art in 1949. During her sixteen years as chair, Bohanon increased the course offerings from twelve to fifteen courses, emphasizing dramatic literature, play production, acting, directing, oral interpretation, voice, stagecraft and stage lighting. She increased the faculty from one to three members and staged two major productions annually. It was through the production program that Bohanon received an outstanding reputation in theater. She devoted her directing energies to staging American and European classics and the quality of her productions is discussed today with great respect and admiration. Her productions included: The Glass Menagerie, King Lear, A Hatful Of Rain, The Medium, Antigone, Don Juan In Hell, Murder In The Cathedral, and Medea. Notable faculty members who collaborated with her over the sixteen years were Stanley Ferber, Arthur Hartell, Edna Mills, Mario Ubans, Terry Williams, and William A. St. Clair. Several of her students became successful theater professionals; most notable are Jacqueline Barnes, who performed off-Broadway with William Marshall, and Ivan Dixon, film actor, director, and producer.
There is evidence that plays were produced as early as March 29, 1938, as indicated on a flier announcing the presentation of The Yellow Shadow by Clark Willard by the Bri-Dra-So Stagers of North Carolina College for Negroes. The 1939-40 North Carolina College Catalog was the first to list Dramatic Art courses separately from English courses. Previously, they were listed with Music courses under Fine Arts. The curriculum design was arranged in three academic periods, each period having three sections. The curriculum emphasized dramatic literature (English and American), history of the theater, voice, acting and directing training, scene construction, set painting, and stage lighting. The year 1939-40 was also the same year that the nationally renowned folklorist, novelist, and playwright Zora Neale Hurston was hired by James E. Shepard to teach drama. Her reputation for staging folkloric performances caught Shepard's attention. While at NCCU, Miss Hurston directed most of her attention to developing her folklore theater with Paul Green in Chapel Hill and left before she staged any plays at the University. She was followed by Caroline B. Day in 1940-41.
Between the academic years 1941-46 the renowned Professor Emeritus, Dr. Helen Edmonds, was hired to teach history and dramatic art courses. She staged annual productions of European and American classics as well as writing and producing the pageant titled The Life And Times Of Dr. James E. Shepard, with two hundred characters and a forty voice speaking choir. Val Dora Turner was hired as a dramatic art instructor from 1943-48 and shared responsibilities with Edmonds for three years.
James P. Cochran was appointed chair after Mary L. Bohanon was transferred to the English Department in 1964-65. He was chair for two years and maintained the curriculum and production program format of previous years. Faculty members who collaborated with him were Edward Kenestrick, John Tasker, Helen Adams, and Jean Williams. Between 1966-70 Helen Adams served as chair and the faculty within this period included Ronald Spainhour, Jean Williams, Oh Kon Cho, and Randolph Umberger. This faculty maintained the curriculum design and production format of previous years but made efforts to feature the works of African-American playwrights (A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry; Day Of Absence And Happy Ending by Douglass Turner Ward; El Hajj Malik by R. N. Davidson; The Baptism by Leroi Jones and The Amen Corner by James Baldwin) along with traditional and classical productions such as Riders To The Sea by Synge, The Imaginary Invalid by Moliere, Medea by Euripides, and Telema Chus Clay by Carlino.
The last faculty member hired by Adams was Norma Sutton Brown in 1969-70. Having received her M. A. in theater from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she was the first alumna of NCCU's Dramatic Art Department to be hired by the University to teach drama. She created two courses to revive the study of African Americans in theater and encouraged the emphasis of black playwrights along with traditional white writers for the production program. Past Chair, Dr. Linda Kerr-Norflett, completed NCCU's Dramatic Art major during Adam's chairmanship.
Adams was succeeded as chairman by the Carolina Playmakers' award winning playwright Randolph Umberger who was the University of North Carolina's first student to win a Shubert Fellowship in Playwriting. The following individuals served on the faculty during Umberger's Chairmanship (1970-75): Norma Sutton Brown, Linwood Taylor, William Shawn Smith, Betty Setzer, Jean Arrington, Glen Dunn, and Linda Kerr -Norflett. They collaborated with him to make dramatic changes in the curriculum and the production program. The faculty was increased to four full-time and one borrowed position, twelve new courses were added/revived (Scene Design, Playwriting, Technical Theatre III, Shakespeare, Children's Theater, Afro-American Drama, Afro-American Theater, Theater Administration, Costume Design, and Western Drama from 1600-1850). Additionally, the development of a Theater Education concentration was initiated; the budget was increased to include revenues from productions and the production program was increased from two to four major shows annually including classical, traditional modem, and contemporary plays. Construction was completed for the new University Theater facility, which greatly expanded acting, construction, and classroom spaces. Randolph Umberger earned his Ph.D. in theater from Tulane University during his chairmanship.
After receiving the M. A. in Theater from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and serving as a faculty member of the NCCU Dramatic Art Department for one year, Dr. Linda Kerr-Norflett was appointed Acting Chair in 1975-76. Since her chairmanship, the following faculty members have collaborated in the continuing development of the Department: Dr. Randolph Umberger, Dr. Johnny Alston, Doris Schneider, Karen Dacons-Brock, Betty Setzer, Kay Sullivan, Linwood Taylor, Brenda Mezz, Micheal Dixon, the late Kenneth Steed, and John Harris. Under the leadership of Kerr-Norflett, continuous advancements have been made in the Department. The faculty has increased from four full-time positions to five full-time and two part-time positions. Six new courses have been added to the curriculum including Methods for Dramatic Art Teachers, Independent Study, Senior Seminar, Theater Practice, Theater Movement, and Touring Theater. Sixty exciting productions have been staged emphasizing the award winning works of prominent African-American and African playwrights along with the works of prominent Euro-American writers. Practical theater concentrations received official University/state approval to enhance the employment flexibility of our majors (Theater Education, Theater Management, Media/Journalism, Theater Costuming, Performance, Technical Theater, and Dramatic Literature). Additionally, the Department began to maintain membership and participate in programs of national, regional, and state organizations to increase professional development, exposure, and opportunities for our students and faculty through scholarly and artistic exchange, competitions and auditions. These organizations include the National Association of Drama and Speech Arts (NADSA), North Carolina Theater Conference (NCTC), Southeastern Theater Conference (SETC), Black Theater Network (BTN), the University Resident Theater Association (URTA), and the American College Theater Festival (ACTF). Through ACTF, the Department has been recognized annually for its outstanding production program. Death And The King's Horseman directed by Karen Dacons-Brock placed among the top six finalists for the Southeastern Region in 1982-83. HOME, directed by Dr. Randolph Umberger, placed among the top six finalists in the Southeastern Region in 1985-86. Additionally, 90% of the productions entered into ACT have been recommended for the Regional Festival. In 1991, the Department's production OF Mules And Men, written and directed by Randolph Umberger, won the national ACTF competition and was performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. In addition, the department was recognized as one of the top five university theatre programs in the country. Over 850 universities were evaluated as part of this competition.
One of the most meaningful accomplishments of the Department was the establishment of the Friends Of The North Carolina Central University Theatre by the Triangle Park Chapter of the Links, Inc. in 1984. They have raised over $100,000 for the Department's production program. In addition, the 1993-94 academic year brought a major upgrade to the production facility including lighting, sound, stage rigging and scenery construction capabilities.
After twenty years as Chair, Dr. Linda Kerr-Norflett passed the reins of leadership to Dr. Johnny B. Alston who was appointed chairperson in 1996. Also in 1996 official approval was given for a name change. The Department of Dramatic Art became the Department of Theatre. In 1997 the Department was fully accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST). Degree concentrations were updated to reflect current professional trends. The new concentrations are: General Theatre, Performance, Theatre Education, Theatre Communications, Theatre Management, and Technical Theatre. The Department arranges additional professional exposure and opportunities for students through summer employment at outdoor dramas and dinner theatres, auditions for seniors to graduate schools, trips to a variety of Theatre Centers and invitational visits of guest artists which have included: Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, Samm Art-Williams, Daphne Reed, Ben Hamey, and Chuck Davis. During the tenure of Dr. Alston the department has added four new courses; Stage management, Design for the Theatre, Theatrical Lighting Design and The history of the American Musical Stage. Work has also begun on a new Musical Theatre concentration.
The success of the Department today is measured in part by the former students who have been able to make theatre a practical part of their lives. Graduates from the Department of Theatre are currently working in a variety of positions as actors, directors and technicians in professional theatre, as teachers in the public schools or higher education; as graduate students in advanced degree programs, or as professionals in related fields. A degree in theatre does not limit a student's ability to work in other areas. Many students use this program as a pre-professional degree in preparation for graduate study in Law, Business (especially Public Relations), the Ministry, Architecture, Product Design and other media areas such as Radio, Television, or Film. An undergraduate degree in Theatre prepares a young adult for the professional work force through increasing personal discipline, organizational skills, creative outlook, and the ability to collaborate and work with others. It encourages a broader appreciation of other cultures and beliefs, and fosters the ability to present oneself in public in a positive and dynamic way. Over the years the department's mission has been to provide a stimulating academic and artistic environment which advocates the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge and skills, emphasizing the interdependence of theatre with our culturally diverse world of ideas and actions. We have a proud heritage of equal opportunity for all students, embracing a full spectrum of social and cultural orientations. The Department will continue to advocate excellence in the personal and professional development of our students as they prepare to become proficient leaders of tomorrow.
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