IWU alum discovers works by early Black playwright

Eric Gardner (English, ’89) will share his discovery of an early African American book of plays in a piece titled “Forgotten Manuscripts: William Jay Greenly’s Antebellum Temperance Drama,” which will appear in the next issue of African American Review. Greenly, a Black teacher in New Albany, Indiana, published the collection of plays titled The Three Drunkards in early 1858; as Greenly’s book seems to pre-date the publication of William Wells Brown’s play The Escape by a few months, it may well be the earliest book of plays published by an African American yet discovered. Greenly’s book is also an important example of early Black temperance literature and of Black literature in the Midwest.

“My speculation—mainly from internal evidence in the plays—is that they were designed either as ‘closet drama’ (and so not meant to be performed) and/or as plays for a kind of readers’ theater (say a church group or a class) where the parts would be read aloud, but not paired with costumes, sets, props, etc.,” Gardner said.

Gardner is Professor, Braun Fellow, and Chair of English at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He also edited Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West (2007) and Major Voices: The Drama of Slavery (2005), and wrote Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature, which will be published this October by the University Press of Mississippi. 

This past weekend Gardner, who was an editor at The Argus while at IWU, presented a paper at the 20th annual conference of the American Literature Association in Boston on “Rethinking the Occasional: 19th Century Black Women’s Newspaper Poetry.” He’s pictured here with Elizabeth Alexander, who was at the conference to receive the 2009 Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society. Alexander, of course, is best known for “Praise Song for the Day,” a poem written for and read at the Inauguration of President Barrack Obama.

In an interview for IWU Online, Gardner said he was “well prepared” for graduate school and beyond. “Certainly Bob Bray’s early instruction in critical reading and recovery, Pam Muirhead’s on African American lit, and Paul Bushnell and Mike Young’s on historical method all shaped what I’m doing now,” he said.

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