Authors: Owen Dodson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright, poet, and novelist

Identity: African American, gay or bisexual

Author Works

Drama:

Deep in Your Heart, pr. 1935

Including Laughter, pr. 1936

The Shining Town, wr. 1937, pb. 1991

Divine Comedy, pr. 1938 (music by Morris Mamorsky)

The Garden of Time, pr. 1939 (music by Shirley Graham)

Everybody Join Hands, pb. 1943

New World A-Coming, pr. 1943

The Third Fourth of July, pb. 1946 (with Countée Cullen)

Bayou Legend, pr. 1948

Till the Victory Is Won, pr. 1965 (opera; with Mark Fax)

Freedom, the Banner, pb. 1984

Long Fiction:

Boy at the Window, 1951 (also published as When Trees Were Green, 1967)

Come Home Early Child, 1977

Short Fiction:

“The Summer Fire,” 1956

Radio Plays:

Old Ironsides, 1942

Robert Smalls, 1942

The Midwest Mobilizes, 1943

Dorrie Miller, 1944

New World A-Coming, 1945

St. Louis Woman, c. 1945 (adaptation of Countée Cullen and Arna Bontemps’s play)

The Dream Awake, 1969

Screenplay:

They Seek a City, 1945

Poetry:

Powerful Long Ladder, 1946

Cages, 1953

The Confession Stone, 1968 (revised and enlarged as The Confession Stone: Song Cycles, 1970)

The Harlem Book of the Dead, 1978 (with James Van De Zee and Camille Billops)

Nonfiction:

“Twice a Year,” 1946-1947

“College Troopers Abroad,” 1950

“Playwrights in Dark Glasses,” 1968

“Who Has Seen the Wind? Playwrights and the Black Experience,” 1977

“Who Has Seen the Wind? Part II,” 1980

Biography

African American dramatist, poet, and novelist Owen Dodson was born into a poor but intellectually stimulating family in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914. Raised in a multiethnic neighborhood with a mix of Jews, Italians, Germans, Dutch people, eastern Europeans, and Scandinavians, Dodson experienced little racial discrimination as he was growing up. Dodson’s father was Nathaniel Dodson, a freelance journalist for the black press and director of the National Negro Press Association. As a boy, Dodson grew accustomed to meeting the black luminaries his father often brought home for meals: James Weldon Johnson, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois.{$I[AN]9810001879}{$I[A]Dodson, Owen}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Dodson, Owen}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Dodson, Owen}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Dodson, Owen}{$I[tim]1914;Dodson, Owen}

Dodson also fell under the spell of Elias Lieberman, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, which Dodson attended. Lieberman, an accomplished poet, encouraged the youth’s gift for writing. By the time he entered high school, Dodson had lost both his parents and was being raised and supported by his schoolteacher sister, Lillian, who sacrificed her personal life to care for her orphaned siblings.

A scholarship attained largely through Lieberman’s efforts enabled Dodson to scuttle his plans to attend the tuition-free City College of New York and go instead to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, from which he received his bachelor’s degree in English in 1936. Upon graduation, he won a fellowship to the Yale University School of Drama, from which he received a master’s degree in 1939.

While Dodson was still an undergraduate, two of his plays were produced. Deep in Your Heart was performed at Bates College in 1935 and Including Laughter at Brooklyn College in 1936. It was not until 1938, however, that his first major production, Divine Comedy, a play about evangelist Father Divine’s exploitation of his followers, was produced at Yale. This play is among Dodson’s most popular and frequently performed dramas.

During his college years, Dodson came to recognize his homosexuality. He attempted to mask it, although he would later be more open about it. Upon graduation from Yale, he encountered the dilemma that many well-educated blacks of that era were forced to confront: Black scholars necessarily taught in black institutions.

Dodson had never lived in the segregated South, but if he wanted to teach, he had to accept the position that Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, offered him. Although his colleagues in the faculty resident suites included the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, William Stanley Braithwaite, Mercer Cook, Frank Snowden, and Ira Reid, Dodson came face-to-face for the first time with having to sit in the back of the bus; ride in the "colored” sections on trains; use the separate rest rooms, drinking fountains, and restaurants for blacks; and live with all the other demeaning conventions that characterized the racially segregated South of the period.

At Spelman, Dodson produced impressive dramas in which he exploited fully his fondness for spectacle. He made his mark as an effective faculty member, although he was too busy to write much. In 1941 Dodson accepted a position at Hampton Institute in Virginia, but his stay there was interrupted by the United States’ entry into World War II. By September, 1942, Dodson was a naval reservist, and shortly thereafter, his reserve unit was called for active duty. His job in the Navy was to write public-relations plays.

During this period, Dodson grew close to Peggy Reiser, whose husband was director of the Rosenwald Foundation in Illinois. The Reisers encouraged the young recruit in his writing. His first book of poetry, Powerful Long Ladder, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1946 and went into a second printing. In 1948 he was appointed head of the English Department at Howard University, where he remained until he retired in 1970.

At Howard, Dodson mounted all-black productions of such classics as Hamlet and The Wild Duck, which led to his troupe’s being invited to tour Scandinavia and Germany in 1949. In 1951 he published his first novel, Boy at the Window, which led to his receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship for the 1953-1954 academic year.

Following his retirement, Dodson moved to New York City, where he and his sister Edith shared a penthouse apartment. Edith died on January 4, 1983; Dodson followed her in death on June 21 of the same year. During his career, he wrote or coauthored two novels, five volumes of poetry, nine plays, and an opera. He also served as an inspired director of drama, a spirited teacher, and a capable if somewhat reluctant university administrator.

BibliographyCarbado, Devon W., Dwight A. McBride, and Donald Weise, eds. Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual African American Fiction. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2002. A chapter is devoted to Dodson. Places him in the context of gay and African American fiction.Dodson, Owen. Interview. In Interviews with Black Writers, edited by John O’Brien. New York: Liveright, 1973. Presents a seven-page interview with Dodson.Hardy, Sallee W., ed. Remembering Owen Dodson. New York: Hatch-Billops Collection, 1984. A useful though somewhat dated resource. Updated by Hatch biography.Hatch, James V. “Owen Dodson.” In Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, edited by Trudier Harris. Vol. 76 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. A good introductory overview of Dodson’s life and career.Hatch, James V. Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. An excellent critical biography of Owen Dodson, which is thorough and insightful.Hatch, James V., and Omanii Abdullah. Black Playwrights, 1823-1977: An Annotated Bibliography of Plays. New York: Bowker, 1977. Includes bibliographical information on Dodson.Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays: A Biographical Directory and Dramatic Index. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Contains production information for Dodson’s plays written, produced, or published after 1950.Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. “The Legendary Owen Dodson of Howard University: His Contributions to the American Theatre.” The Crisis 86 (1979): 373-378. Contains biographical and critical commentary. Speculates that Dodson’s greatest literary legacy will be his drama rather than his poemsPeterson, Bernard L., Jr. “Owen Dodson.” Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Broadcasting Scripts. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990. Contains a brief biographical entry. Categorizes and provides production information for Dodson’s plays written, produced or published before 1950.
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