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Religion in African American theater topic of author's talk

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Elaine Justice

Craig R. Prentiss, author of "Staging Faith: Religion and African American Theater from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II," will visit Emory University for a book reading and signing Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 6:30 p.m. in the Jones Room at Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library.

The book examines the intersection of religion and theater as a reflection of African American life during the first Great Migration (roughly 1910-1930). Those were tumultuous years, when large numbers of African Americans moved from the largely rural South to cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West in search of jobs and greater possibilities for their futures.

A professor of religious studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., Prentiss discusses nearly 40 African American-written plays from about 1915 to 1940 in his book. Most of the plays are obscure and unpublished, and many of them were performed in community centers and churches.

Billops and Hatch archive 'the best there is'

Prentiss' work on "Staging Faith" included research in the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch archive of African American visual and performing arts collections in Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), which contains about 1,200 original play scripts by African Americans in addition to other materials. Billops and Hatch placed a portion of their collections with MARBL in 2002, which have continued to grow with subsequent additions.

"I don't think there's a collection that compares to the Billops-Hatch collection with respect to African American theater as a whole," Prentiss says, adding he spent a week at Emory researching in the collection. "This collection is the best there is."

Playwrights focused on hypocrisy

Prentiss says the plays reflect the mounting class tensions of the time period that caused many African Americans to question their long-held religious beliefs.

"Where the audience might have seen African Americans portrayed as hyper-religious or deeply concerned with personal morality, the playwrights themselves were often taking stands against that excessive religiosity," Prentiss says. "They often took a somewhat cynical look at the way small-town church morality functioned, focusing on the hypocrisy and judgmentalism."

Prentiss will read from the book, answer questions from the audience, and sign books after the event. Books will be for sale before and after the program, and light refreshments will be served.

"We're very pleased to have Craig Prentiss come to Emory to talk about his book, since he did a significant amount of research in the Billops-Hatch archive in MARBL," says Pellom McDaniels III, faculty curator of MARBL's African American Collections and Emory assistant professor of African American Studies. " 'Staging Faith' demonstrates how our materials are being used by researchers, and how invaluable our collections are to the larger research community. I hope this talk inspires students, faculty and others in the Atlanta community to think about what they can do with MARBL collections."

The Robert W. Woodruff Library is located at 540 Asbury Circle in Atlanta, 30322. Parking is available in the Fishburne deck. For event-related information, contact Julie Braun at

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