In Memoriam: James Vernon Hatch (1928-2020)
Saturday, March 14, 2020
Photo credit: Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University
“Mining the Past to Forge the Future”
Shane Breaux, Resident Dramaturg, NY Shakespeare Exchange
When I first met Jim Hatch, he had been coaxed out of retirement from the classroom by Dr. Mira Felner to teach one last class on African American theatre history to undergraduate and Masters students at Hunter College in 2009. On the first day of class, with his infectious wide grin and wearing one of his signature kerchiefs tied around his neck, he asked if any of us thought it would ever be possible to write an integrated history of the American theatre. That, to me, seemed a most preposterous question. Why wouldn’t that be possible? Isn’t that the goal? Shouldn’t this professor expect us to believe in this possibility?
This was only my first year of graduate school, so I didn’t know yet that, of course, Jim started the semester with this query specifically to point out the absurdity of the lack of such a history and inspire us to go on to write them ourselves. Indeed, he followed the question by making eye contact with each of us in the room and directly charging us to use what we were going to learn in his class to advocate, and agitate, for racial equality and other social changes in the United States. He repeated this charge to us on the last day of class, and by that time, he had fully inspired me to devote my graduate studies and future career to black theatre. After the semester ended, I was fortunate enough that Jim offered to continue to mentor me. He hired me to work with him for two years at the archive of black art he started in 1968 with the artist Camille Billops, his longest and closest collaborator as the couple was married for nearly thirty-two years until her death in 2019. That experience not only afforded me close access to much of the collection’s holdings, which ignited my passion for archival research, it also allowed me to get to know Jim and Camille more personally and to enjoy their wonderfully wicked senses of humor. Those experiences remain integral to my professional career and my deep love and appreciation for black theatre.
I had actually been thinking about those days and Jim’s lasting influence on me personally and professionally when I learned of his passing. Earlier that very day, I had consulted two of his books—A History of African American Theatre and Black Drama USA—for an essay I was writing about the extraordinary new plays by black playwrights currently enjoying wide attention in U.S. theatre. It was somewhat comforting to realize that he was still helping me in my work through his writing. Since I met him in 2009, I have taken Jim’s charge and inspiration seriously. I wrote an integrated history of early twentieth-century musical variety performers for my doctoral dissertation (under the direction of one of Jim’s earlier students, Dr. James F. Wilson) that relied heavily on archival research. Today, I continue to follow his lead by teaching and writing in the activist mode I learned from him in his class, on those long afternoons discussing black art and culture while sorting through archive boxes, and from his many other contributions to the field made during his long, extraordinary career.
Dr. James Vernon Hatch was born in 1928 in Oelwein, Iowa. He attended graduate school at the University of Iowa while teaching high school English and drama. After earning his PhD in theatre in 1958, he began his career teaching in higher education while also establishing his reputation as one of the foremost historians of black drama in the United States, and as a celebrated playwright, editor, filmmaker, archivist, and social activist. He taught around the world, at the University of California, Los Angeles; the High Cinema Institute in Cairo, Egypt as a Fulbright lecturer; the University of Hamburg; New York University; National Teachers College in Taiwan; the City College of New York; and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, to name several. In 1997, Dr. Hatch was given a Life Achievement Award by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
For more than half a century, Hatch was at the forefront of African American theatre history, a position he productively used to perform social activism in every aspect of his work. For instance, as a scholar and historian, he edited and published anthologies of black plays, most of which had never been published or were out of print at the time. Every anthology Hatch edited also includes several plays by women writers. Among those collections, he co-edited The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938 (with Leo Hamalian in 1991), which is notable for its inclusion of a rare vaudeville sketch written by the comedy-dancing duo Butterbeans and Susie (Jodie and Susie Edwards); Lost Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, 1920–1940 (again with Hamalian in 1996); and the two-volume collection Black Drama USA (with Ted Shine in 1974 and revised in 1996). The latter anthologies include plays as early as 1847 through 1992.
As an artist in his own right, he cowrote the musical Fly Blackbird with C. Bernard Jackson, which enjoyed successful runs in Los Angeles and New York City where it won the 1962 Obie Award for Best Musical. In collaboration with Billops, he also made several films, notably The KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks, which was awarded Best Documentary by the Filmmakers Consortium in 1994, and Finding Christa, which was given the Grand Jury Award by the Sundance Film Festival in 1992.
Also a prolific writer, Hatch published Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson, a critical biography of the writer Dodson, in 1993. ASTR honored that book with the Bernard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History and gave the same award to the still-unsurpassed A History of African American Theatre (2003), which Hatch co-wrote with Errol G. Hill and published in the Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama series. He published numerous articles in journals and essay collections. In addition, Hatch and Billops co-founded Artist and Influence: The Journal of Black American Cultural History in 1981. The journal was published annually and included original poetry, essays, photographs, illustrations, drawings, and an oral history archive of transcripts of interviews with more than 400 artists from all creative genres and forms.
Most of those interviews had been conducted in the couple’s SoHo loft in New York City. The loft was a remarkable place where Hatch and Billops lived and worked. Billops worked in a painting and sculpting studio at one end, while the vast holdings of the Hatch/Billops Collection were kept at the other. He and Billops began this staggering collection of rare and primary materials on African American culture and art in 1968 when they noted a frustrating dearth of information and published works. The collection continued to grow through the early 2000s, and now the Hatch/Billops Collection includes thousands of rare and out-of-print books, manuscripts, periodicals, printed artwork and original photographs, and theatrical ephemera such as clippings files, playbills, posters, and pamphlets. This is in addition to more than 1200 plays written by African Americans and an extensive library of published books about literature, painting, photography, music, dance, theatre, and film. Today, this significant collection, renamed The Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives, remains accessible at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. Hatch and Billops attended the opening of its first public exhibition hosted by the university in 2016, appropriately titled “Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch.” The enormous impact Hatch has had on individuals like me and on the field of black theatre more broadly is undeniable, and his work will continue to inspire and “raise hell” through this collection and his published works.