|With the financial stability of her teaching career, Grimké began to focus on her writing. She garnered critical acclaim for her poetry, much of which consisted of tributes to great African Americans, grief elegies, observances of nature’s beauty, and semi-veiled Queer love poems. Lynching was another common theme in Grimké’s work as she began to employ her pen to affect change. She was prolific and, though largely overlooked today, helped usher in the Harlem Renaissance before Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes became household names.
The NAACP put out a call for plays by Black authors as vehicle to rally support against the infamous film The Birth of Nation. Grimké answered that call with her groundbreaking three-act drama, Rachel (originally entitled Blessed Are the Barren). The plot concerns the humble Loving family — the matriarch, Rachel Loving loves children and longs to be a mother, but after seeing the devastating effects racism has had on the children she cares for, and learning that her father and brother were lynched (her mother had kept the cause of their deaths secret), begins to grapple with the devastating realities that accompany raising black children.
Rachel is a lost landmark of American theatre. Regarded as the first play by an African American woman to ever be produced professionally, the play saw it’s first production in 1916 at the Miner Normal School, a teachers college for African Americans founded by abolitionist Myrtilla Miner. With a cast of local, African American thespians, the NAACP touted the production as “The first attempt to use the stage for propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.” The production was a success, and was produced again the following year at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.
Rachel would receive further attention, garnering critical acclaim after it was published as a book in 1920. Alain Locke commented that Rachel was “the first successful drama written by a Negro and interpreted by Negro actors.” The script has been reprinted multiple times over the past century — a scan of the first edition can be accessed online for free here. Rachel made it’s UK debut to critical acclaim in 2014 at the award winning Off-WestEnd, Finborough Theatre — a British company celebrated for their “rarely seen, rediscovered 19th and 20th century plays.”